Up Against the Wall, Magician
4 3 2 1
(Henry Holt, 2017)
In a recent New York Times article, it was announced that Paul Auster, in celebration of his upcoming seventieth birthday, would appear onstage with his singer-songwriter daughter, Sophie, and the magician David Blaine at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. “My grandfather was a very skillful amateur magician,” the article quoted Auster as saying. “In his retirement, as an old man, he went around calling himself the Great Zavello, performing in old people’s homes around New York City with his retired secretary Shirley playing the accordion.”1
While the elder Auster’s proficiency for distraction did not trickle down to his grandson on the stage, it certainly has in the written word, as evidenced by a career in both the literary and film worlds that spans decades, beginning right around the time when Jerry Rubin (he of the Yippie ilk) announced the founding of his own management and venture capital firm.
In this Bildungsroman set mostly in the 1960’s, Rubin does not make an appearance, although Mark Rudd does, as Auster performs the magic of cutting a story into four separate pieces, each branching off after the early childhood of protagonist Archie Ferguson. Gradually each story unwinds with its own plot twists and auxiliary characters set to the backdrop of Cold War politics, the Civil Rights movement, and the rise of the New Left, largely culminating in the student uprisings at Auster’s alma mater of Columbia University in 1968.
If 4 3 2 1 at some points begs comparison to fellow Newark native Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, for a novel that often shoehorns cultural and historical figures (both Frank O’Hara and John Ashberry are mentioned in passing, upon their deaths, as friends of friends) the book is nonetheless rather light. At the conclusion of one narrative (for not all Archies live to see their early twenties) Auster alludes to the untimely death of Richard Fariña, who name is left out among the checklist. The reader is spared the trope of precociousness often found in his peers’ young protagonists, left instead with a painfully self-aware and self-indulgent narrator in the place of an obsequious child, who, preparing to do a jackknife into a pool in front of their mother, repeatedly yells, “Are you looking?” In fact, Archie’s mother proves to be the only main female character that is not viewed through the blood tinted glasses of the male gaze as either potential lover or benefactor.
Despite this, the issue of race is not treated with kid gloves: the 1967 Newark riots featured heavily in two narratives, each with a different reaction from the previous generation. Ferguson’s friends at one point may weep over the death of Frank O’Hara, but his story teller makes a conscious decision to mention the beating and arrest of poet LeRoi Jones, another Newark native, later known as Amiri Baraka. “The idea that the city would blow up was obvious,” said Baraka. In a moment of pure and bitter verisimilitude in one narrative, the Ferguson family, among the ethnic whites left doing business in the Brick City’s Weequahic neighborhood, are blindsided by the rebellion, only for Archie’s mother to ultimately benefit from the nights of violence in her photography.
Charles Dickens once said of nostalgia that, “The dreams of childhood—its airy fables, its graceful, beautiful, humane, impossible adornments of the world beyond; so good to be believed in once, so good to be remembered when outgrown.” Thankfully, Auster does not fall into this trap. The pain and confusion of puberty, the grief of loved ones lost, and the disillusionment when youth fades or is jolted into adulthood are all too real and engrossing on the page. Indeed, Dickens is often referenced, held out as an olive branch to class inequality. For no matter how low Archie could fall, the boy is always spared poverty, saved by some benefactor and usually a large sum of money that keeps him from years of menial work. While life is full of flukes, either through luck or what some might consider destiny, by hook or by crook, it seems a little too easy and predictable that Ferguson is never drafted and sent to Vietnam, which would have proved to be a much more interesting story than that of his self-education in Europe. Forrest Gump sent letters from rice paddy fields to his childhood sweetheart. Archie Ferguson sent his from cafes in the Left Bank of Paris. Archie Andrews sent letters to no one.
Auster’s deftness keeps Ferguson from descending into a saccharine sweet stew. Our (anti)hero is one whose personality is shaped in part by circumstance, much of which is out of his control, and faced with choices not he, but only the narrator could foretell. However, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, I found myself trudging through the remainder of the lives and loves of Ferguson, stuck in the mire of the late ’60s, an experience akin to swimming in the Hudson River, past other works of meta-fiction that hang suspended like floating bald tires and through oil slick passages such as:
Mercifully, he was not aware of the cruel plan the gods had devised for him. Mercifully, he did not know he was destined to have such a brief entry in The Book of Terrestrial Life, and therefore he went on living as if there were thousands of tomorrows in front of him rather than just three hundred and four.
Ironically, the issue isn’t that of 4 3 2 1 being another novel gazing into the navel of the baby-boom era, but of one that often shows up in many works by those in the generations that have followed: pulling every silk scarf from the magician’s thumb tip. “Maybe David Blaine will make me disappear while I’m reading,” said Mr. Auster at the end of the Times article. This work had me hoping the narrators would take his place.
- Brett Sokol, “Paul Auster’s Latest Trick? Celebrating 70 With David Blaine,” New York Times, February 5, 2017.
ERIC NELSON is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.