Novel imagines a life lived four different ways

Book design for Paul Auster's “4 3 2 1”
Book design for Paul Auster's "4 3 2 1".
Courtesy of Henry Holt and Company

Writer Paul Auster has always been interested in the question, "What if?"

What if key moments in a person's life had played out differently? How would that life have changed? Auster's new novel, "4 3 2 1," takes a stab at an answer.

Auster is 70. "I've been pondering this question of 'What if' all my life, of course," he said. "I think most of us do."

Unlike most of us, Auster came up with a way of answering the question in detail:

"Which was, tell the story of a person's life as a set of parallel lives, and play out the different options," he said.

And that's how Archie Ferguson came into being. Or at least four Fergusons. They share a common birthday in 1947 in Newark, N.J., but as "4 3 2 1" progresses, their lives become very different.

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"The four Fergusons live in four different towns," said Auster. "That's the first divergence. And as time goes on, more and more things begin to diverge. He's genetically the same person but his circumstances are often vastly different from one to the other, and therefore he develops in different ways even though all four boys share certain traits."

There's a moody Ferguson, a positive Ferguson, a gay Ferguson and a standoffish Ferguson. They are all interested in sports, in writing and, in time, in falling in love. Auster says the book is about the different stages we go through from childhood to adulthood.

We also meet four sets of friends and relatives who are also walking their own different paths, depending on which Ferguson story they inhabit.

On top of that, "4 3 2 1" details a tumultuous time in the United States, the '50s and the '60s, which Auster describes as his era.

"The book is not autobiographical," he said. "I only took a few minor, minor things from my own life. But the geography is my geography, and the chronology is my chronology."

The United States was changing. The civil rights movement was in the ascendency, and the Vietnam war was ramping up. Everything seemed fractured, society divided. He said that although he finished the book long before last year's election, he's surprised at the similarities he's seeing with today.

"So many of the things we were living through then seem to be present on the American scene now," he said. "And how little things have changed, and how much, at the same time. It's bewildering, to tell the truth."

There are a number of bewildering things about "4 3 2 1," starting with its size. It is almost 900 pages, the longest book Auster has written. He presents four stories of the Fergusons' early lives, then four of a few years later, and so on.

"I know the book is an elephant, but I hope it's a sprinting elephant," he said. "Because each chapter is more or less a work unto itself."

He likened them to a series of short stories or novellas. When asked about the deep sense of mortality in all of the stories, Auster said he had been working under a cloud.

"Because the strange thing was, I began writing it when I was 66. And 66 was the year my father died. For a while there, I was haunted by the idea that my days were numbered," he said.

Auster will read from "4 3 2 1" at 7 p.m. Wednesday at a Rain Taxi event at Macalester College in St. Paul. Although he lives in Brooklyn, he's no stranger to Minnesota. He's married to Northfield native and acclaimed critic and novelist Siri Hustvedt. He said they are each other's first readers and editors, and she always improves his work.

"People think, two writers living together, there are bound to be conflicts and difficulties," he said. "But it's just the opposite. It's a bonus to be with someone who understands what you are doing, and who you are at your very core."

Auster said Hustvedt just let him read the first 75 pages of her new novel, and it's very good.