Review 1516: 4321

As we go through life, we make choices and have choices made for us that open up possibilities to us while closing down others. What if we could see the results of taking some of the paths not chosen or those resulting from different circumstances? In 4321, Paul Auster explores this theme.

Archie is the grandson of a Russian immigrant whose name was recorded as Ferguson by an immigration official. 4321 follows Archie as a boy and a young man leading four different lives.

Some things about Archie remain constant while others change. He has the same parents, but in one story they’re happily married, in one a parent is widowed, and in one they are divorced. His father’s business is bought out or burgled or burned down. As a result of the fate of the business, his family is just hanging on to the middle class or wealthy, they live in New Jersey or New York. He always loves Amy Schneiderman, but in one story they are lovers, in another cousins by marriage, in another stepbrother and sister. He goes to college at Columbia or Princeton or not at all. He is a writer—a journalist, a poet, a literary fiction author. And so on.

It is very unusual for me to take more than two weeks to read a work of fiction, but this was the case with 4321. I was reading it for my Booker project, so did not acquaint myself with it before I started. That meant that I had a tough time getting started until I caught on to what was going on with Chapter 1.4. (The chapters are numbered with subsections to help you keep track of the four Fergusons.)

Then, I found myself alternating between being interested and slogging through the book because of my own determination to finish, possibly because I am not that interested in the inner lives (or outer ones) of adolescent boys, and Archie’s story ends at the age of 22. And in fact, the story is uneven. There is way too much information about certain subjects, the political situation at 1969 Columbia University being one, baseball another, Archie’s juvenile fiction, which we get to read (shudder), a third.

I also haven’t seen any references in reviews (not that I read them all) to Auster’s writing style, which is verbose, with long chapters (averaging more than 100 pages) broken down into long paragraphs (often a page or more) and very long, not to say run-on, sentences.

Was this book worth reading? Yes. I was more engaged at the end than in the middle. And spoiler: This book has an interesting ending, as in the last few pages you find out you’ve been reading a work of pure metafiction.

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Day 666: The Magnificent Spinster

Cover for The Magnificent SpinsterJust a quick update! The members of Literary Wives have just finished choosing books for the coming year. See my Literary Wives page for the list of upcoming books. If you want to read along, join us April 6 for a discussion of The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison.


In 1985, May Sarton wrote The Magnificent Spinster in an attempt to honor her friend Anne Longfellow Thorp. It is a fictionalized biography of her friend’s life that is being reissued.

Cam has returned from her friend Jane Reid’s funeral thinking that no one will remember her extraordinary friend after her friends and relatives die. So, she sets out to write a novel about Jane.

This novel is just as concerned about the act of writing a novel as it is about the subject matter. Each section begins with a paragraph or two about the author’s uncertainties or difficulties and about her conversations with other friends of Jane while gathering information for the book.

The novel has feminist overtones, one of its purposes being clearly to illustrate how a single woman, even one born around the turn of the 20th century, could live an active and fulfilling life. Although I was interested especially in the depiction of Jane’s summer times spent on a family island, I felt there was too much worship in this portrait to really get a sense of Jane. Opportunities of real possible interest, like learning about her teaching, her reason for quitting teaching, or her work in Germany after World War II are lost in surfacy descriptions or ignored. When she helps found some sort of group house in Germany, the purpose of the project isn’t even explained until later in that section.

When some of the most interesting possibilities have to do with Cam’s own life, for example her experiences during the Spanish-American war, they are only alluded to. I understand that Sarton was trying to focus on the character of Jane, but Cam is a character in the novel, too, and the novel sometimes deals with her problems. The novel is missing some opportunities to gain interest from those experiences. In fact, it suffers overall from assuming a knowledge of both characters’ friends and activities that the reader cannot know. For example, some people come to visit Jane on her last summer on the island, but it takes a long time before Sarton explains who they are.

link to NetgalleyToo often the dialogue is trivial and to little purpose, and almost all conversations end with people agreeing what a wonderful, extraordinary person Jane is. Some of this rubbed me the wrong way, too, because it was clear her friends thought she was the more extraordinary for having decided to lead an active life of service rather than the one of privilege that she was born to. Although this decision is admirable, I don’t think she deserves more praise than anyone not born to privilege who leads a life of service, perhaps less, because another person would have a harder time affording to live the way Jane chooses to do. I have no doubt the original subject of this bio-fiction was an unusual and worthy woman, but Sarton doesn’t really make us feel it.

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Day 567: Jack Maggs

Cover for Jack MaggsBest Book of the Week!
Jack Maggs belongs in a growing genre of fiction that reinterprets a classic novel. In this case, the novel works in two ways: as another look at Great Expectations from the point of view of a different character and as a loose work of metafiction.

Jack Maggs is a convict illegally returned from Australia when he arrives at the door of a gentleman named Henry Phipps, only to find no one at home. The maid from a neighboring house, Mercy Larkin, thinks he has come to the wrong house as an applicant for a footman position in her own. Maggs decides to take the position so that he can watch the neighboring house for Phipps’ return.

Maggs’ employer is Percy Buckle, once a grocer, who inherited some money and fancies himself a patron of the arts. That night Buckle entertains at dinner a famous author, Tobias Oates, who dabbles in mesmerism. During dinner, Maggs is attacked by a horrible pain in his face, which makes him collapse. Oates hypnotizes him in an attempt to cure him but also gets him to tell some of his secrets.

Soon the two are locked in a struggle. Oates has mentioned knowing of a thief-taker, whom Maggs wants to employ to find Phipps. Oates only agrees to give him the name in exchange for two weeks of allowing him to mesmerize Maggs. Oates, who has realized quickly that Maggs is a fugitive, wants to learn about the criminal mind for an upcoming book. But Maggs becomes dangerous when he learns Oates has found out his secrets.

This tale is really gripping and ultimately suspenseful. It is also very Dickensian in nature—in its storytelling, its empathy for the poor, its dark London atmosphere, its character names, and its rather convoluted but satisfying plot. Our sympathy is all for Maggs, who has built up in his mind a fantasy about Phipps, whom he educated and made a gentleman, and who he does not realize is hiding from him in dread.

Oates is meant to be Dickens himself, and he is depicted less sympathetically. He misuses Maggs in service of his writing, but he is not much more responsible toward members of his own family.

Although Carey won a Booker prize for Oscar and Lucinda, I think Jack Maggs is much more powerful.