Who: American Paul Auster, 70, is considered one of the biggest stars of post-modern fiction today. The author of 17 novels rose to prominence in the 1980s with the metafictional The New York Trilogy. 4 3 2 1 is, at 866 pages, literally his greatest novel.
In 1947, a baby named Archibald Isaac Ferguson is born in a New Jersey hospital and, from that single beginning, goes on to lead four different lives.
Four Fergusons grow up in four independent, parallel universes, with lives that are at different points both strikingly disparate and eerily similar.
Paul Auster's latest work takes the what-ifs of life and cobbles them into a fascinating whole, exploring the impact that both chance and fate have on an individual's life.
Unlike the sparse elegance of his famous The New York Trilogy, this novel delves deep into the minutiae of its main character's life.
The reader is told of each Ferguson's likes and dislikes, hobbies and dreams, all of which vary in his four lives. One Ferguson loves baseball, another cannot stand the sport. One hopes to be a hard-hitting newspaper journalist; another, a film critic.
4 3 2 1
Faber & Faber/ Hardback/ 866 pages/ $27.82/Books Kinokuniya/4/5 stars
In less skilful hands, this level of detail would make wading through it feel like a chore. Auster, however, makes it a celebration of the mundane, fleshing out each of his Fergusons through rambling run-on sentences with an artist's sense of rhythm and poetry.
For example: "Countless weekend mornings, countless weekday afternoons, countless early evenings throughout the week playing pickup games with his friends in public parks, not to mention the multiple home-grown offshoots of the game, among them stickball, wiffleball, stoopball, punch ball, wall ball..."
The trajectory that each Ferguson's life takes often seems to have been shaped by pure chance - a matter of which small town his parents decided to live in or the decision to watch a movie on a Tuesday in late March at exactly one o'clock.
At the same time, what all the Fergusons have in common are a loving mother, a somewhat distant father and, above all, a deep and complex relationship with a girl named Amy Schneiderman - who is to different Fergusons a friend, cousin, stepsister or lover.
This raises thorny questions about chance and fate - are human beings, for example, destined to meet certain people? How would their lives be if they had chosen differently on a single occasion?
With themes such as these, Auster's 4 3 2 1 is a weighty read - both figuratively and literally - but never a slog.
If you like this, read: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Hodder & Stoughton, Books Kinokuniya, $17.95), a narrative spanning hundreds of years and involving six people, all of whom are linked in some way.
•A version of this review first ran in Life on March 28.