“4 3 2 1” by Paul Auster leads me to reflect a little about books where characters live more than one life

Not many titles of books are all numbers, unless they are dates, but the exception to this rather general rule is 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster which is a book whose title becomes apparent as the narrative progresses. This is a book which follows the life of Archibald Ferguson from his birth in 1947 four times. There are four alternating versions of Ferguson’s life and the narrative moves between them as the book progresses. As each Ferguson dies his timeline stops abruptly and we hear nothing else at all about the characters or events that we have been absorbed in – it is quite shocking each time it happens and you have no idea that it is going to occur. Most of the same people appear in each timeline and so do the major events in history but they affect the life of Ferguson differently each time.

I originally wrote a review of this book last year when I mistakenly called the main character Stanley (which is his father’s name) – his surname is used for most of the book but that’s no excuse for carelessness on my part. You can read that review here. I don’t want to restate what I have already said but I do want to muse a bit on the recent fashion for books which tell a story about a character’s parallel lives. I have recently read Fractured by Dani Atkins which does much the same thing although in this book the two timelines seem to become mixed so that the main character, Rachel, is swapped from one to the other much to her confusion and distress. The books have little in common apart from this way of telling a story although Fractured only talks about two timelines and is a considerably shorter book.

Another book which did the same thing is The First Time Lauren Pailing Died by Alyson Redd which I read in September last year and reviewed here. This book offers several versions of Lauren’s life depending on when she dies. Each reality seems to link to others and each Lauren gets a glimpse of other Laurens and their lives. Each world is not quite the same – for example, in one world cats don’t exist. This book is quite similar to Fractured in a lot of ways.

The difference between the other two books I have mentioned and 4 3 2 1 is that Paul Auster’s book gives a solution to the varying timelines plot and explains why we are reading them. The other two books only hint at possible reasons and don’t provide any realistic solution whereas 4 3 2 1 has a logical and believable explanation (which quite a lot of leaders found to be a let-down I understand but which I quite liked).

I find it difficult to explain the attraction of this kind of storyline but I think it is because each of us secretly wonders what sort of life we would have lived if certain things had been different in our lives. It is fun to see that explored in fiction.

Paul Auster’s book is contemporary literary fiction. It is a serious book which examines lots of things about our culture and recent history. Fractured is really a romance with an unusual twist and The First Time Lauren Pailing Died is a modern, popular novel – it is interesting to see the different ways that authors approach this theme and how they present it to the viewer. I recommend all these books but do have to warn you that 4 3 2 1 is very long – I wrote about long books here and considered if they were worth the reading time. There are also lots of other books about parallel lives which are worth searching out if you enjoy this theme.

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