We live our lives mostly in the moment, but also attendant to the question of what if?— what if we had lived in that town rather than the one I know? what if my father (or mother) had died? what if my parents had divorced? what if I had attended school X rather than school Y? what if I had accepted that offered job? Such speculative lines of thought are wisps of thinking in which we all indulge. Award-winning author Paul Auster’s latest—and longest—work of fiction, the künstlerroman 4 3 2 1, posits such thoughts as the basis of its plot: four parallel stories of Archibald Isaac Ferguson.

“The idea came to me to tell one life as four parallel lives,” Auster explains. And these lives often share some skeletal elements with Auster’s own boyhood: post-World War II New Jersey, sports, Columbia University, writing, French language study. “The novel is my geography and chronology,” Auster explains, “but not my life at all.”

Connections to actual figures (for example, the classics professor and translator Robert Fagles becomes Robert Nagle) and historical events (the Columbia student occupation of the campus buildings, the Attica prison uprising) play a prominent role in the novel. One key core element for one of the narrative strands is the death of a friend at summer camp, a death that has its origins in Auster’s past and that also serves as a fundamental theme for the novel and even a metaphor for the relationship of the writer with his or her characters. Caught in an electrical storm while hiking, the band of boys Auster was with tried to get to an open clearing away from the trees. To make their way to the field, the boys had to crawl under a barbed wire fence, and the boy crawling directly in front of the 14-year-old Auster was under the fence when lightning struck, killing the young adolescent. “His shoe was in front of my face,” Auster remembers. “I’ve been haunted by that moment all of my life. The fragility of life was made real to me that day. My work and this novel have been inspired by it. And a writer who creates other selves in his or her work must love them in order to honor them, even when, especially when, they must die. Only through this love can the writer feel the awe and horror of death.” The structure of the novel echoes this notion of honoring those who die: as the lives move forward, those Fergusons who die still have a page dedicated to them, a blank marker on the narrative field of ink or type.

The multiple plots of the novel remain grounded in a set of givens: relatives, the prior work experiences of the parents. Auster is astute in recognizing that the options for Ferguson radiate from the foundation his parents’ own prior and joined histories bring to his life, as, for example, our college friendships, even after four years, are mostly mere extensions of those freshman year friendships in our first dorm.

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These Fergusons are almost all writers: film criticism and memoir, translations and journalism, fiction writing. Auster’s early writings and translations make their way into the stories of these emerging writers. “Some archival materials,” Auster laughs, “are used in the novel.” Several key stories are invented by Auster for the novel: “I tried to put myself in the mind of a precocious 14-year-old as I wrote.”

This novel, four novels in one, is Auster’s longest ever. “I knew it was big from the start,” Auster observes. “Most of my books are about 250 pages.Paul Auster Cover Every time I wrote about 300 pages, I felt flattened. I had to recover before I could return to the writing.”

The Fergusons often mention writers who serve as inspiration, and there is crossover with Auster as well: Crime and Punishment, the stories of Kleist. “Crime and Punishment gave me my awareness that I wanted to be a writer,” Auster states. “If a novel can do this, I thought, then I’m in.” Kleist’s stories are less well known than his plays, but Auster likes the narrative quality of the stories: “Kleist tells and tells and tells. In 4 3 2 1, I tell and tell and tell.”

Fairy tales, jokes, fables, legends—all of these narrative elements are part of Auster’s fictive stew. Tragedy and humor exist side by side—as they decorate prosceniums, as in life. Characters persevere and disappear. Good is evident, and the bad undercuts what these characters expect for themselves, for their futures. Auster has written a large-hearted book on the unpredictability of living, ushering readers into caring for the different versions of Ferguson with all of our sympathies.

J. W. Bonner teaches writing and the Humanities at Asheville School, in Asheville, North Carolina.