Archibald Isaac Ferguson, Archie to his friends, is born in New Jersey in 1947. After that, things get complicated. His father dies horribly in a botched arson attack on his furniture store, or he lives to cash out on the insurance and move the family to stifling suburban affluence. His parents stay together, or they don’t. His mother becomes a renowned gritty-realist photographer married to a music critic, or stays unhappily (or happily) married. Archie himself loses his virginity to a ‘kissing cousin’, or in a Manhattan brothel, or to a male friend.
Paul Auster’s 4321 is really four novels in one, even if – spoiler alert – one of the stories runs shorter than the other three. It explores chance and contingency, tracing the impact of the small things that happen in any life (or don’t) to steer it hither or yon. Archie’s coming of age is sticky with adolescent male grue, but redeemed by a healthy dose of intellectual curiosity and – in some iterations at least – a dawning awareness of racial and political injustice, with civil rights, JFK, Vietnam, campus riots, the day they executed the Rosenbergs and so on seldom far from view.
This seems like a pretty good idea (even if the alternate-worlds hypothesis isn’t allowed to extend beyond Archie’s immediate circle – there’s no version of events in which the Rosenbergs get to see 1954). It is executed with a kind of chilly rigour whereby all the Archies get a chapter