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The Uncivil Servant: Auster at His Worst

Mitchell Abidor
February 17, 2017
by Mitchell Abidor Discussed in this essay: 4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster. Henry Holt, 866 pages, 2017. IT WAS SOMETIME around thirty years ago that I met and interviewed Paul Auster. He was not yet the star of world literature he now is, at the time widely known in small circles for the most part, but beginning to break out into the wider world. He was warm, cordial, friendly, open. After we had lunch in a diner in Park Slope, we went to his house where he gave me and signed copies of the books of his I didn’t own, and he introduced me to his wife, Siri Hustvedt. We met again a few weeks later to discuss the draft of the transcript of the interview, and we parted on warm terms, after hitting it off famously, both of us having been single fathers, both of us francophones in love with French literature and film. He told me to keep in touch, but I didn’t, fearing to bother him when stardom struck. And a star he is. His books now appear simultaneously in English, French, and German, and the only author I know of who had that privilege was Enver Hoxha, leader of Albania. I continued to read all of his books, and my initial enthusiasm began to fade over the years, as I became increasingly aware of flaws in his novels -- how despite his overflowing imagination the characters were becoming increasingly flat, the dialogue leaden, the exchanges between men and women written as if by Google translate or cribbed from the worst kinds of potboilers. And yet, out of fidelity to that early love of his books, to his brilliant New York Trilogy in particular, I persisted. Which leads us to Auster’s latest work, the massive, ambitious 4 3 2 1, an 866-page tome telling the four possible lives of the same character: the suburban New Jersey Jew, Archie Ferguson (the Scottish name is explained on the first page and elaborated on in the final pages, and is easily the nearest thing to a funny story in a book that deludes itself into thinking it is full of them). As long as… well, as four of his usual books, 4 3 2 1 is unquestionably Paul Auster’s worst book. But I would go further and saw that it is among the worst books of our dreadful century. An explanation here about the notion of a “worst book,” one best explained by the analogous notion of a “worst film.” IT IS OFTEN SAID that Ed Woods’ Plan 9 From Outer Space is the worst film ever, but that’s simply wrong. A film as bad and cheaply made as Plan 9 can’t be “worst” because it doesn’t aspire to “best.” A film like Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman, on the other hand, can be called a truly terrible film. It is in its ambitions that a book or a film should be judged, and 4 3 2 1 strives to be a masterpiece, to tell us something significant in a novel way. It not only fails to be one, it is in fact a maddening compendium of all that is wrong with Auster’s work. To be kind, it could be called, I suppose, a noble failure, and in fact there are elements of the book that are outstanding. It is a brilliant depiction of middle-class Jewish childhood in the New York area in the 50’s and 60’s, giving a wonderful flavor of what it was to grow up then, and is particularly good in the importance it lends sports. A novel that drops the names of Bob Cousy and Choo-Choo Coleman cannot be all bad. All of the variants on the main character are obsessed with sports, particularly baseball, as is Paul Auster himself, a dyed-in-the-wool Mets fan from suburban New Jersey. Various Archie Fergusons translate French poetry, live in Paris, knows many of the leading lights of the New York avant garde (in poorly, almost ridiculously disguised forms: Ron Padgett appearing as Ron Pearson, Jo Brainerd ads Bo Jainerd) , so its autobiographical elements are there for all to see. Auster, despite his growing weaknesses as a novelist, has never ceased being a terrific memoirist, and the best part of 4 3 2 1 is his account of the occupation at Columbia University in 1968, led by his childhood friend Mark Rudd, who taught the actual Auster (and one of the Archie Fergusons) how to drive a stick shift, and appears under his own name in the novel. These pages are a fascinating reminder of the events and the times, Columbia’s uprising occurring just weeks before the explosion in France on May 3, 1968, and which served as an inspiration to the French. He also delivers himself of a brief and moving encomium to the City University of New York system of the '60s, when a working-class elite attended tuition-free schools. But as the book wears on –- and make no mistake about it, 866 pages of this particular book is a long, wearing slog –- the reader cannot but become not merely exasperated, but enraged at the dreadful prose, the clichés, the overwriting, the excessive detail that turn the book from a noble failure into a disaster. A disaster caused, in large part, by Auster’s inflated sense of his self-worth. When not whining about his inability to get laid, the various Archies attract men and women alike, and in one particularly outrageous chapter we are informed that the wife of one of his best childhood friends yearns for him, as does a male neighbor, who goes to sleep after masturbating while thinking about him. And the prose to describe this is simply beyond words. Auster describes the feelings of the wife: “’Yes, I’ve been married to this kind, softheaded lummox for a month now, but I’m still dreaming about you, Archie, and how could you possibly have rejected me for all those years when in fact we were made for each other from the start, and here I am, take me, and damn the consequences.” “Take me and damn the consequences?” Are we reading a world- class author or Danielle Steele? And who, even in their thoughts, uses the word “lummox?” Sex features with tiresome regularity in 4 3 2 1, and if there’s anything more boring than detailed and poorly written descriptions of sex in literature -– it’s not for nothing that an annual prize is given out for such writing -- I don’t know what it is. When the umpteenth new character is introduced who we just know is going to fall under the sexual sway of one of the Archies, my impulse was to toss the book across the room, but given its heft I was afraid it would damage a wall. Instead, I took the advice my mother would give me when I told her I was bored. I went and banged my head against the wall. ARCHIE/AUSTER is not only too good-looking to be resisted, he is too talented a writer for those around him to fail to notice this from his teenage years on. The fawning over him/them quickly becomes predictable, and quickly leaves us dubious when we are given samples of his work. He is also, it goes without saying, a great athlete, excelling at baseball and basketball. Stunningly handsome, a great prosateur, a great lover, a great hitter, a man capable of sinking an outside shot, what could he grow up to be but Paul Auster? And then there are the humorous sections of the book that are anything but, as when we are told that “Luther told Ferguson that his roommate at Brandeis had been a fellow freshman named Timothy Sawyer, in other words Tim Sawyer, Ferguson laughed, and then he asked Luther if Tim bore any resemblance to Tom, but Luther said no, he reminded him more of that other character in the Murk Twang book, Hick Funn. That was funny. Murk Twang and Hick Funn were genuinely funny.” No, they’re not. They’re silly and don’t even raise a smile. There’s more where that came from, unfortunately. Add to this that the plot is full of so many implausibilities that again, banging your head against the wall is the only response. When one of the Archies discovers that his sperm count is so low that it’s unlikely he can have children, his withholding of this information from his girlfriend is described by a friend as “reprehensible.” But he was 22 at the time and she 19, hardly an age at which issues like that matter, much less are “reprehensible,” so the whole section and the drama around it is simply silly. I have been keeping a series of notebooks for the past several years, in which I note quotes from books that appeal to me. The end result of this will be a form of autobiography without a single word having been written by me. There was not one phrase in 4 3 2 1 worthy of entry in my notebook. There were many howlers, however, and ordinarily, when I come across striking lines in books I am reading, either good or bad, I like to read them aloud to my wife. And then I came across lines like, “Not only had Ferguson met the next one, but as the summer went on he asked himself if he hadn’t found the One, who would blot out all others for the rest of his days on this wretched, beautiful earth.” “This wretched, beautiful earth?” “The One”? No, that can’t be. The awful lines in 4 3 2 1 were so awful that my love for Joan didn’t allow me to inflict them on her. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.