“4321” is a tome– an innovative, annoying conglomeration of 4 unique possibilities for one man’s life. The author best describes the novel himself through the main character Archie Ferguson, who observes that “the story was released from the domain of jokes to become a parable about human destiny and the endlessly forking paths a person must confront as he walks through life.” That is the novel 4321 —and isn’t it annoying that after 860 pages the author feels that he has to tell you what the book is about in case you are not smart enough to ordain it for yourself.
Indeed, 4321 is four differing stories about Archie Ferguson, each with a different outcome generally dependent on the paths his parents take (and of course some of his own decisions). In one tale, his father becomes tremendously wealthy and his parents divorce and each remarries. In one tale his father dies in a fire and his mother remarries. In another, his father has financial setbacks and his parents live a harmonious life together and yet in another, well, let’s just leave the ending of that one for you to discover on your own.
Archie Ferguson, born in 1947, is the only child of Jewish parents, Rose and Stanley Ferguson. Those facts do not change throughout the story. Rose’s parents, Benjamin and Emma, were immigrants, both of whom had come to America before the age of 3. Benjamin was a fast talking womanizer and Emma an inexperienced and shy wallflower of a woman. These characterizations are consistent throughout the novel. Rose has a sister, Mildred, whose relationship to Archie is significant throughout the novel, but whose life circumstances vary from 4 to 3 to 2 to 1. Before she met and married Stanley, Rose worked as a photographer at Schneidermans. The Schneiderman family plays a significant role in all four stories.
Stanley has two good for nothing brothers, Arnold and Louis. The brothers’ circumstances change based on Stanley’s changing circumstances and ultimately the brothers are forgotten.
In the different stories Archie attends different colleges, breaks different bones, has different loves and lives in different cities. But there is a great deal of commonality in the stories as well. New York is a significant backdrop to each story. In addition, the 1960s, the Vietnam war and the protests throughout the country, but especially the protests in Newark and at Columbia University play a major role in the stories. Those parts of the book, the telling of the history of those times, are the most vivid and enjoyable parts of the novel. There are many successful and failed romances and in each story Archie focuses on some type of writing—whether it is novels, translations, journalism or all three. Archie’s parents and the Schneidermans are a constant presence throughout the stories, but in differing ways and Archie’s financial challenges are also a consistent theme.
The book is 866 pages and requires a real commitment. Ultimately I have decided that the commitment was not at all worthwhile. 4321 is a story within a story within a story within a story, but at the end we learn…well not really. The author seems to have some contempt for his readers as evidenced by his need to tell us that the story is a parable and the all too neat and completely unsatisfying ending. The novel is extremely well written and the concept is clever but by the end, it is just one time consuming disappointment. If you still want to read it, you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.