Four versions of an ordinary life.
Auster’s first novel in seven years is nothing if not ambitious: a four-part invention, more than 800 pages, that follows the life (or lives) of Archie Ferguson, despite his name a child of Jewish Newark, born in the 1940s. If such a territory seems well-traveled (Philip Roth, anyone?), Auster, as he often does, has something more complex in mind. Indeed, his subject in these pages is identity: not how it gets fixed but rather all the ways it can unfurl. To that end, he develops the book as four distinct narratives, each imagining a different life for Archie depending on the circumstances faced by himself and his family. It’s an ingenious move, and when it works, which is often, it gives a sense of breadth and scope, of unpredictability, to the novel as a whole. This is underscored by Auster’s decision to keep the rest of the book naturalistic, taking place in an identifiable world. Thus, once young Ferguson discovers baseball, he watches Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, Giants versus Indians, in which Willie Mays made his legendary catch. Later, he will end up in Europe as an aesthete, or as a student transferring to Brooklyn College, or in Rochester, New York, as a journalist reporting on the aftermath of the 1960s and the bombing of Cambodia. The history helps to keep us rooted, both because it’s recognizable and also because it remains consistent across the novel’s narratives, its variations on this single life. So, too, Auster’s sense of possibility, his understanding that what all his Fergusons have in common, with us and with one another, is a kind of quiet intensity, a striving to discover who they are. “It could never end,” he writes about one incarnation of the character. “The sun was stuck in the sky, a page had gone missing from the book, and it would always be summer as long as they didn’t breathe too hard or ask for too much, always the summer when they were nineteen and were finally, finally almost, finally perhaps almost on the brink of saying good-bye to the moment when everything was still in front of them.”
With this novel, Auster reminds us that not just life, but also narrative is always conditional, that it only appears inevitable after the fact.