The moment you turn the last page of a book, finally heaving a sigh of relief or perhaps some dejection at the end of a journey you wanted to go on, you become a different person.
It’s funny how I can always remember the empty feeling I’m left after finishing a really good book, a kind of piercing emotion that throws me off every single time. Such as when I read Exit West, during my lunch break at work. Having to walk back to my desk was a little disconcerting, having just spent so much time, all of it memorable with Nadia and Saeed as they drifted from one place to another. It almost feels like spending a lifetime with these people, as if these characters were people whose numbers I had saved on my phone, that I could call up on and check in whenever I want.
After finishing Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1: A Novel (Amazon | Indiebound) one evening, I had to take a walk. I could’ve settled for my neighborhood, a suburb south of San Francisco, but instead I headed to the nearest mall by my house. I felt like I needed to engulf myself in a sea of strangers.
The book is the story of a young man, Archie Ferguson, who lives four different versions of his life, a grand tale, a coming-of-age story.
On my short drive to the mall, I was thinking about the boy. In the eleven days that I spent with the book, not once did this character leave my mind. There’s the story, or stories I should say, the structure, and the character that struck me over and over again as I slogged my way through the brick of a book 4 3 2 1 was.
First, there was the story of Archie Ferguson, actually, the many stories of Archie Ferguson from his grandfather’s descent in New York City up until his youngest son’s marriage to the beautiful Rose Adler, Archie’s mom. Getting to know his parents’ story and his birth, his childhood in its many variants was interesting, because this way, you get to know Archie four more times as intimate as you normally would in a typical novel. Who he was was pretty consistent, a mild-mannered child whose internal world was filled with characters from the books that he read, who was incredibly drawn to the people in his childhood, people who revolved around him that he couldn’t seem to let go off. This was a common thread throughout his life, no matter which version I was reading.
Second, the structure is seamless, as if there were events from another version or distinct scenes that would continue on to the next one, as if the four stories was one whole epic called The Book of Terrestrial Life. This is such a masterpiece in its entirety, a labor of love, except for a few quirks and the early deaths that made me wonder if they were intentional or quite frankly, if Auster just got lazy. (I mean, I’m struggling to write only one book but here’s Auster with four different versions of the same story, four books all in all). I like that he really kept it consistent, that Archie was Archie through and through, with the kind heart always looking for the big love that he always dreamt of.
Third, there’s Archie himself, who’s probably the smartest and sweetest character I’ve read in a long time, the one you would root for endlessly, although nothing really tragic happens to him (well, except for when he dies), but the boy didn’t really have to suffer through anything throughout his life. Guided by an intensely loving mother who had a fierce independence about her, she who had a brilliant eye for photography, an artist in her own right, steadfast and tender in the ways he loved Archie, she, a fortress of strength for the young one. Which in turn made Archie the kind of boy he is, thoughtful and sincere and curious. He was soft in all aspects of his life, only soft because he’s had a solid footing, a kind of grounding that allowed him to be soft. I think I witnessed his hardness only once, I think, stubborn in the way he refused a relationship with his dad in one version, when they were still living together in what he termed the Castle of Silence.
How can you not like the boy who dedicated his life to literature and to seeking the clarity from all the chaos he was surrounded in? His childhood is such a stark contrast to my own, whereas he was thinking about practicing his writing, I was thinking about running away from home. How do you create the kind of boy he is? How do you account for the ways that make sense to him? The way he loved every single woman in the book — especially dear Amy, was breathtaking in its depth, but I guess I have Auster to thank for for putting words into what is usually untranslatable, the kind of big love we all dream of.
Big love for words, for literature, for his mother, for the women in his life, for the world. In more ways than none, his life is pretty enviable.
The appeal of newspapers was altogether different from the appeal of books. Books were solid and permanent, and newspapers were flimsy, ephemeral throwaways, discarded the instant after they had been read, to be replaced by another one the next morning, every morning a fresh paper for the new day. Books moved forward in a straight line from beginning to end, whereas newspapers were always in several places at once, a hodgepodge of simultaneity and contradiction, with multiple stories coexisting on the same page, each one exposing a different aspect of the world, each one asserting a an idea, or a fact that had nothing to do with the one that stood beside it, a war on the right, an egg-and-spoon race on the left, a burning building at the top, a Girl Scout reunion at the bottom, big things and small things mixed together, tragic things on page 1 and frivolous things on page 4, winter floods and police investigations, scientific discoveries and dessert recipes, deaths and births, advice to the lovelorn and crossword puzzles, touchdown passes and debates in Congress, cyclones and symphonies, labor strikes and transatlantic balloon voyages, the morning paper necessarily had to include each one of those events in its columns of black, smudgy ink, and every morning Ferguson exulted in the messiness of it all, for that was what the world was, he felt, a big, churning mess, with millions of different things happening in it at the same time.
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