In the Green Chair, Talking Alternative Lives:
PAUL AUSTER with J.T. Price
4 3 2 1
(Henry Holt & Company, 2017)
On an outwardly pleasant day in early April of 2017, the author appears in profile through the glass panels of his front door. When the buzzer sounds, Paul Auster rises from his dining-room table to welcome me. I have arrived, on the dot, at 2 p.m. to discuss his teeming new novel of the 1960s 4 3 2 1. It is a bildungsroman with a speculative twist: four different lives lived in alternating sequence by the same young man. Auster cordially inquires after my own story while hanging up the cardigan I have handed over to him, then points us toward his den, which adjoins the dining room, which adjoins the kitchen in a classic row-house layout. Somewhere nearby, a Park Slope church bell marks the hour. I grew up in the Midwest, I relay, and have lived in Brooklyn since 2001, a fiction writer since high school. Light reaches the den from the glass doors to the backyard. On this floor there are not many books on display, and no shelves in sight, not at least that I see. Taking one of a pair of green chairs, I find myself thinking of a visit that Quinn, the protagonist of Auster’s first published novel City of Glass, pays to a mysterious private eye client: “[the room] loomed up around him as a kind of blur. He realized that it was large, perhaps five or six rooms, and that it was richly furnished, with numerous art objects, silver ashtrays, and elaborately framed paintings on the walls. But that was all. No more than a general impression—even though he was there, looking at those things with his own eyes.” In Auster’s home, as opposed to the fiction teasing my mind, there is not a single ashtray in sight; as we talk, Auster occasionally draws on an e-cigarette. The Persian rug beneath our feet notwithstanding, “richly furnished” would be a stretch as description: the aesthetic of the home that Auster shares with his wife, the novelist Siri Hustvedt, tends more toward understated elegance. No doubt, though, there is art on the walls, art that comes into crisper focus when Auster speaks of it.
Paul Auster: The Midwest. Where in the Midwest?
Price (Rail): Missouri—St. Louis.
Auster: St. Louis. I was out there only once. It must have been 25 or 30 years ago. Washington University. They invited me and I spent about four days there. It was kind of nice.
Rail: It’s a nice town—in its way.
Auster: The strange thing about St. Louis was that the inner city seemed to be entirely hollowed out. Whereas the suburbs around it are gorgeous—some of the prettiest neighborhoods I’ve ever seen in America.
Rail: That’s the exact story of St. Louis. The city-county line. A story of real flight to the suburbs. It’s a source of tension, obviously. It was a great place to be a kid for me. I think when I was a little more conscious as an adult, it was different, I saw it differently.
Auster: Well, just to tell you, the original title of the book we’re going to talk about was ‘Ferguson.’ But you probably know this already.
Rail: I’ve read some previous interviews—and yes!
Auster: And then, about a year and a half after I started, I learned (along with everyone else in the world) that there’s a town with the same name. I don’t think anyone outside of Missouri had ever heard of it. After that, my title was no longer possible. Anyone picking up the book would have thought it was about that terrible murder.
Rail: There’s the event, commanding all this media attention: how long before you felt maybe you would have to—
Auster: I didn’t hesitate. I knew that it was no longer possible once the gravity of the situation became clear. Ferguson is now in that history of racial struggle in America. Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham… Ferguson. So I immediately [short laugh] started thinking of other titles. And came up with what I came up with. Which, in the end, I think I prefer. But that’s neither here nor there.
Rail: Well, this question I think plays right off that. I’m going to quote you to yourself, which is perhaps a questionable thing to do—“No book I’ve ever published has ever turned out as I thought it would.” More broadly, how did you think 4 3 2 1 would turn out? What stories do the alternate 4 3 2 1’s tell?
Auster: When the idea came to me, I got very excited by it and immediately started sketching out various approaches. I didn’t know how many boys there would be. I started just arbitrarily with nine—nine lives. An hour later, I understood that would have been far too many. Then there were seven, then there were five, and at last I hit upon four: the perfect square [forms a finger-square].
Rail: Was this still in the outline stage?
Auster: I hadn’t written anything yet. I was just thinking about it. As a rule, I don’t take extensive notes while preparing a book. A few jottings, but nothing of any consequence. At first, I thought I would take the boys much deeper into their lives. Even into old age. But as I was working on it, I realized that essentially it’s a book about human development. And all those early years, say the first 20 years of a person’s life, are so rich with change, nearly every month something new is happening to us. After a while I realized that was the period I wanted to focus on. And so I made the decision at some point—pretty early on—not to take them beyond early 20s. That would be the cut-off point. As I was working on the book, I discovered that it was essentially a book about the ’50s and ’60s; that was the period I was concentrating on. So, chronologically it all seemed to come together. I didn’t have a master plan, I was improvising, almost every day. I would have a sense of what I wanted to do in a chapter and I would jot down a number of thoughts about it. Say twenty thoughts, but then only three or four of them would find their way into the finished chapter. So there was a lot of material I never got to—a lot of other characters, a lot of other stories. I didn’t want the book to become so unwieldy that no one could lift it off the ground. [Laughter.] I tried to keep it moving as swiftly as possible. A book in which each chapter would function as a little work in itself.
Rail: On that note, “keeping it moving as swiftly as possible,” many—even most—novelists arrive at a literary style and stick with it, come hell or high water. Much rarer, I think, is the author whose prose style varies from book to book. It’s typically seen in younger writers. E.L. Doctorow is the only mercurial major author who comes to mind for me. 4 3 2 1 features a distinctly different style than any you’ve written fiction in before. Breathless, propulsive, almost Kerouac-like in its tidal force. Would you say a little bit about how this style developed?
Auster: Little by little, over recent years, my prose has changed. It’s opened up. I think it started with Invisible, then carried on with Sunset Park, and continued with Winter Journal and Report from the Interior—two novels, two autobiographical works. In all of those books there are sentences that go on for two or three pages. I found a new kind of release in this kind of run-on sentence, which seemed to accumulate energy as it went along. And the results were startling, it seemed to me. It’s not as if it’s stream-of-consciousness—it’s by no means that. But somehow the longer sentences seem to mirror the movement of thought. It’s just an unfolding, I think, a gradual evolution. With 4 3 2 1, I wanted to create a feeling of dancing—a whirl. I felt that those kinds of long, propulsive sentences could create that effect. At the same time—and this is an odd thing to say—there’s a certain distancing that goes on with that kind of sentence as well. And it enhances, I think, what I was trying to achieve in the book, which was a kind of literary tone that is not usual today. A feeling of writing a legend, or some kind of epic. And there’s a kind of humorous acknowledgment of that throughout the book.
Rail: A bit tongue-in-cheek.
Auster: Yes, the delight in storytelling, I think this is part of what the book is about. And the unleashing of narrative energy. That’s why the book begins, “According to family legend…” Those are the first words of the novel. As if we’re in another world. That’s why there are the frequent references to “the gods” with a small ‘g’. That’s why I made up this ridiculous but I think amusing—
Rail: “The Book of Terrestrial Life.”
Auster: Exactly, “The Book of Terrestrial Life” in which every single thing that ever happened in the history of humanity is recorded. So we’re dealing with an older form of storytelling than 19th or 20th or 21st century novels. Even though it shares something with all those centuries as well.
Rail: Now, should fiction writing be ‘fun’ and was 4 3 2 1 fun to write?
Auster: Ah, fun is not the word I would use. I would never say, ‘it’s fun.’ It’s—[sighs]. Let me find the word. At its best, it’s satisfying. At its very, very best, it could be exultant. But there’s a lot of hard work involved, as you know. I don’t have to tell you how difficult it is to write a decent sentence. Or a decent page. How much effort goes into it. I’ve come to the point, though, having done this for a good 50 years now that even the struggle and the difficulties and the pains and the frustrations of it all, the whole enterprise, are somehow rewarding to me as well. I can get up from my desk after six or eight hours of effort, having accomplished nothing, having thrown out every word I’ve written, and still say to myself, ‘I gave everything I had today. I didn’t hold back.’ Finally, I think that’s the only justification for doing this. You have a job, a calling, a vocation, a profession—whatever you want to call writing, I don’t know what to call it—that demands maximum effort all the time. Most jobs don’t ask that of you. You can get lazy as a lawyer… or even as a doctor, just float along by relying on old habits and routines. But you can’t write well if you’re lazy.
Rail: What was it like as a quite prolific novelist to step back from novel-writing for a couple of years?
Auster: Sunset Park took a lot out of me. I wrote it in a very short period. I was in a strange, trancelike state. A few months after I finished, I had an idea for another novel. I started writing it, and once I got about a hundred pages in, I realized that, on the one hand, I was still writing the previous book, and on the other hand, I didn’t really know how to tell the story I was proposing to tell. It kept spreading out—it was going left and right, but not forward. And I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to do it. So I put it aside, understanding that I needed a pause from writing fiction. And the truth was that there had been another book in the back of my mind—
Rail: Winter Journal.
Auster: Winter Journal, and once I finished it, I realized I wasn’t quite finished. And so I wrote the second one. They’re twins. They belong together, those two books. Working on those two autobiographical books was the first time in my adult life that I had revisited my childhood in any serious way. They seemed to be plowing the ground for something bigger. Which turned into this novel. Without having written Winter Journal and Report from the Interior, I doubt I would have thought of doing 4 3 2 1.
Rail: I know because I read as much that you have a soft spot for a remark the poet George Oppen once made to you, which was about getting old.
Auster: Yeah, yeah [chuckles].
Rail: “What a strange thing to happen to a little boy.” And, in some sense, I read 4 3 2 1 as a sort of Oz-like stepping out from behind the great and foreboding screen of your fiction to date. Except for instead of an exasperated and grumpy old man, what we behold is a boy singing the songs of his tidal enthusiasm. No mean feat for an author who is...
Auster: [Laughs] At this ripe old age?
Rail: A few years removed from boyhood at last count.
Auster: How true.
Rail: Must a big novel be a ‘big, important statement’ book, a magnum opus?
Auster: I don’t know. Truly, I wasn’t thinking about any of this as I was writing the book. I was seized by the idea, it pulled me in, and before long I was fully in it. I was afraid it was going to take me five or six or seven years to finish. And that maybe I wouldn’t live to finish. So I restructured my life in many ways. I did no readings, I did no interviews, I took no trips. I just stayed here and worked. Everyday. For three-plus years. I started the book when I was 66, which was my father’s age when he died—66. He died very suddenly, unexpectedly, and I thought—well, I didn’t think anything. I had this eerie feeling that I was coming to a moment when I was going to be older than my father ever got to be. It was a spooky line to cross, I have to say, which only intensified my commitment to working as hard as I could.
Rail: I have a Republican-voting uncle—in the most recent presidential election he wrote in ‘Daffy Duck’—who completed this novel before I did, and is reported to have loved it.
Rail: In this most politically divided of moments, featuring a degree of partisan strife that’s hard to imagine becoming any more toxic than it is, what role can literary fiction and fiction in general play in bridging these seemingly impossible chasms, these wide and ever-widening gyres?
Auster: Let me think about it. I’m of two minds about this, and that’s why I’m finding it hard to say anything immediately. On the one hand, I don’t think art accomplishes anything. I think one of the great beauties of art is that it’s useless and it has no practical effect. And at the same time, it’s something that we go to because not only does it give us pleasure in the best of circumstances but it seems to fulfill some need, some inner hunger for, in the case of books, stories—which we tell one another every day. Whether we’re writing them out or just chewing the fat with one another. We’re absorbing fiction in myriad ways all the time, whether we’re readers of so-called literature or not. Whether we’re watching crime-stories on TV, going to movies, reading comic books. Human beings have an insatiable need for stories. And I think what stories do—no matter how complex they might be—is that they demarcate the world. They simplify the world. The world of everyday minute-to-minute experience is so complex, there is such a barrage of things happening to us at every instant that if you were going to, say, try to write a novel about our conversation and our sitting in this room, it could take maybe 5000 pages to do it well. Because I’d have to describe every single object in the room. And then where it came from. And how it was constructed. And then we’d have to have your whole life story. Every moment before the moment when you sat down in that green chair. And same with me. Etcetera. And we can’t do that. So we invent stories in order to see the world more clearly. All this is fulfilling some inner need and, at the same time, giving pleasure. But, the other thing about novels that’s important to remember—and I’ve said this a thousand times before—is that it’s the only place in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy. And in that way, oddly enough, novels are a democratic art. Because novels postulate the importance of everyone’s life. Novels can take as their subject the lives of the great, but also the small. And even the invisible ones, the broken ones. And if a writer is good enough to write about the invisible or the broken in such a way as to capture something of the truth of that other imaginary being that can get through to the reader… the reader is going to experience something new. And understand something about other people that he or she didn’t before. And I think that’s why we learn from novels even though I couldn’t exactly say what the lessons are. But we learn something about what it means to be human. As for politics and public policy and effecting immediate changes in the world… no. Art doesn’t do that.
Rail: Speaking of “absorbing fiction everywhere we look,” ‘alternative facts’ are usually the province of fiction writers. How galling is it as an accomplished fiction writer to see a political clique lay open claim to the prerogatives of the fiction writer? Does this mean that fiction writers may soon lay claim to the prerogatives of politicians by starting to pass laws?
Auster: [Laughter.] That’s the funniest question I’ve ever heard. Well, let’s put it this way…
Rail: And what law would you pass?
Auster: What law would I pass? [Laughter.] Maybe I’d force Donald Trump to start reading books. Apparently, he doesn’t like the smell of them. Yes, yes, or so I’ve heard. Famously, the very young Philip Roth back in the early ’60s wrote—you know this essay, everybody knows it: American reality is so bizarre, so beyond the powers of even the most inventive novelist, that fiction is always running behind reality in this crazy country we live in. He wrote that piece more than 50 years ago. I don’t think anything has fundamentally changed since then. And yet! I believe he’s deeply wrong, because we continue to write novels. And he himself spent the next 50 years writing novels. And people read novels for all the reasons we just discussed. But… no, I don’t want to enact any laws. On the other hand, I do have certain policy ideas that I would like to see enacted immediately.
Rail: An example?
Auster: Just to talk about a couple. First: the healthcare business. What amazes me watching this debate go on now is that the Affordable Care Act was actually an invention of the Heritage Foundation. It’s a right-wing plan. Because the right-wing understood that there’s either health-care-for-all, Medicare-for-all, a single payer system or—nothing, a free-for-all. Which is what we had before the Affordable Care Act. Which was untenable. So they came up with a compromised solution that would keep the insurance companies in business. Which was enacted, as you know, in one state, Massachusetts, under a Republican governor. For seven years the Republicans have been trying to get rid of this essentially right-wing health care act. But there is no alternative. And I don’t see how they can be so stupid as not to realize this. You have to have the three pillars of the system, or it doesn’t work. Meaning you have to have the mandate; you have to insure people who have illnesses and preexisting conditions; and you have to have Medicaid to help the people who have no money. It’s that simple. And the Republicans don’t want Medicaid or the mandate. And therefore it all collapses and it can’t possibly work. They can knock their skulls together for the next hundred years and they’ll never come up with a solution. To see such ignorance played out in public is shocking to me.
OK, my other great plan to help improve the country is to start paying teachers what lawyers and doctors get. Give them $250,000 a year. That’s what teachers should get. And then you’d get the brightest students out of college wanting to teach. I think, automatically, the level of teaching in the country would improve. Everyone’s always talking about building new schools and getting computers in and having these tests and those tests, but no. It’s the quality of the teaching that matters. It would take fierce national resolve to do such a thing—but why not? OK, one more plan I have is for childcare. We live in an economy now where even the most thriving middle class families generally have both parents working. That creates the big question: Who takes care of the children? Well, if you’re rich, you can hire a nanny. But if you’re not, what do you do? You throw your children to the wolves—unless you’re lucky enough to have the grandparents around. Otherwise, you’re forced to put your kids into daycare centers with untrained people taking care of the children. Now, in France, they’ve had a system since the late 19th or early 20th century: the École maternelle. This is something that starts at around the age of two. And everybody—everybody—can send their children to one of these schools. In order to teach at an École maternelle, you need to have a university degree and also two years of graduate work in child psychology and child education. If you’re poor, it’s free. If you’re rich, you pay. There’s a sliding scale of fees. I don’t see why something similar wouldn’t work here. It would change how families live in this country overnight.
Rail: Let’s get that legislation passed.
Auster: Stepping off my soapbox now. [Laughter.] Back to the ground.
Rail: Pivoting back to 4 3 2 1, a friend who is also a novelist told me he found himself unable to surrender his imagination to reading the novel because of the cognitive dissonance between there being multiple Fergusons. He didn’t know which one to believe in as ‘real.’ On the other hand, I dug this sense of multiplicity and alternate possibilities: it was thrilling to me, and early in the novel you start to resolve that tension. By the end it has been completely resolved. That’s what marks the ending of the novel as the ending. For all their reveling in possibility, the way they stray from each other’s example, each Ferguson must ultimately reckon with limitation, how one choice forecloses the possibility of others. Even a choice as seemingly simple as crossing a street. I’m trying to decide if this is a lesson that those pursuing fiction-writing learn more or less intensely than those pursuing other callings. The hunger for a life beyond the life given.
Auster: I don’t know if I thought of this in terms of ‘a writerly decision’ to do this. It was just a plain human fact. I’ve often speculated, and I think we all have speculated about the decisions we’ve made and about the consequences of those decisions. For good or ill. Not to speak of the circumstances into which we’ve been born. The good luck or bad luck to be born in a rich country like the United States. Or to be born in Syria today. And live in a country under siege and try to survive in a city that’s totally destroyed. It’s just luck. Having thought about all this all my life, the idea of being able to play it all out in a novel was a thrilling prospect to me. I’m surprised that your novelist friend couldn’t get with it—because it would seem that, of all people, novelists would be the ones who would most easily accept this premise. In my own case, I started thinking about this in great earnest when I was 14—after living through that horrible experience in the woods at a summer camp when the boy right next to me was killed by lightning. This experience has haunted me all my life. I’ve thought about it almost everyday. And I know it has affected the way I think about the world. I know it has affected the books I’ve written. I know that the book is not only about that. But it’s deep in the heart of the whole project. Which leads me to say, too, just in parentheses, that the book is not an autobiographical book. It’s a book that borrows my geography and my chronology, but it’s not my story…
Rail: It plays around with your facts.
Auster: Somewhat, in any case. But then I started asking myself, “What does it mean to talk about autobiographical sources in fiction?” If you’ve smoked several thousand cigarettes in your life, and then you have a character in a book smoke a cigarette, is that autobiographical? Or if you’ve eaten yogurt, and you have a character eat yogurt, is that autobiographical?
Rail: ‘An Autobiography of Eating Yogurt.’
Auster: I don’t know, I don’t know—I don’t have an answer. But it becomes pretty murky, doesn’t it? Because then you can say, well, my eyes work and I can see the world and I can see the paintings on that wall over there [gestures across the room at the opposite wall where there is an arrangement of paintings, some larger, some smaller.] If I have a character in a book look at a wall with paintings on it, is that an autobiographical reference or not? I don’t know. Probably not, but maybe it is.
Rail: I can see that. There have been—I’m going to walk gingerly here—but there have been a few notably bad ‘bad’ reviews of 4 3 2 1. A couple of years ago now, a very prominent critic wrote what I would call a good ‘bad’ review of a different novel of yours—‘good’ at least in that its argument was painstakingly stated point by point with accurate citations. Even if I think what was painstakingly stated is that he missed the point of your novel. One glaringly false conclusion he arrived at is that your fiction is only ever “unwittingly funny.” Even a novel written as early as City of Glass has a kind of humor intrinsic to it: I’m thinking of Quinn telling Virginia Stillman, “Don’t worry, I haven’t let anyone down yet.”
Rail: Even if that humor is a little subtle, a little shadowy, a little Beckett. Humor is central to 4 3 2 1 in many ways. I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit—you’ve already alluded to the premise being based in part on a joke.
Auster: A joke I didn’t invent, by the way. I just added a new wrinkle to it. You’ve just brought up about three or four points in your question. The first thing is, yes, there have been some very hostile responses to the novel. I’ve understood over the years that there are people out there who simply don’t like what I do. They don’t like me, and they’re never going to read my work with the openness of spirit that would allow them to understand what I’m doing. I can’t spend my time moping about being misunderstood by these people. There’s such a chasm between their preconceptions of my work and what I’m actually putting on the page that any kind of conversation is impossible. As Siri has often said, “Art is like sex. If you don’t relax, you can’t enjoy it.”
Rail: If I may quote from the novel itself, when one of the Fergusons publishes his own novel, the critical response is, “Ferguson was both a genius and an idiot, both a wonder boy and a supercilious oaf, both the best thing that had happened this year and the worst thing that had happened this year, both brimming with talent and utterly devoid of it.”
Auster: [Laughter.] Well, there you go, that’s it. Maybe I was anticipating what was going to happen. Because for every nasty one, there’s been an equally enthusiastic one. And I don’t read them, generally speaking. But for this book, I’ve peeked… a little bit. And I’ve seen, and people have told me. So I have a pretty good sense of what has happened. In the end, maybe a writer should feel glad that he doesn’t appeal to everybody. After all, my first novel, City of Glass, was rejected by 17 publishers. Now it’s published in 45 different languages. What am I supposed to make of that? Even at 70, I still feel embattled. And I’m still fighting in the way I was fighting when I was young.
Rail: Which maybe, as a writer, is a good thing.
Auster: I think so. Because it puts you outside rather than inside. And I think a writer’s place is to be outside. As for humor, yes, of course, I think there’s been humor in all my work. It’s not, as you say, always obvious humor. But it’s there. It’s deeply embedded in most of what I’ve done. And let’s not forget that I was involved in co-directing and writing one of the silliest movies ever made, Blue in the Face. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it.
Rail: I’ve seen Smoke, but not Blue in the Face.
Auster: Blue in the Face is nuts. A six-day shoot of mostly improvised material.
Rail: I was reading about it ahead of this—and it costars among others… Michael J. Fox…
Auster: He came in, he did a scene, he was wonderful—absolutely hilarious. A great and inspired improviser. He really can think on his feet with the best of them. So, yes. After all I wrote a whole novel about a silent comedian [The Book of Illusions]. And invented silent comedies for it. But 4 3 2 1 definitely, definitely has a deep reservoir of humor in it. One friend—I’d given him the manuscript, because there are four people whom I went to Columbia with who are mentioned by name in the novel. [The phone rings and Auster, apologizing, sweeps over to answer it: Siri Hustvedt is calling from Minneapolis—her flight made it after many delays having to do with “weather in Atlanta… even though she’s going to Minnesota. She met three young women who have been stranded for three days.” Auster has returned to the green chair.] So, what was I saying? Oh, yes. I went to Columbia, but I was not a reporter for the student paper the way Ferguson One is. But four people are mentioned by name: Mark Rudd, who was head of SDS and someone I went to both high school and college with him. Robert Friedman was editor of the student paper. Hilton Obenzinger, the character in the book who throws meat at the wall—he actually did throw meat at the walls in 1969. And Les Gottesman, the author of the poem with the refrain, “A steady fuck is good for you.”
Rail: Which figures in the novel.
Auster: So, I contacted all of them and said, ‘Read the manuscript and tell me if you’re OK with this. If not, I’ll change your names.’ No, no, they were all fine with it. Les wrote back and said, ‘I love the book. And it’s really funny.’ That was the first thing he said about it. How funny he thought it was.
Rail: Can’t beat a review like that, from someone who was there. It has also been noted in various reviews that the various Fergusons explore different ideas about class. Perhaps more to the point, though, each Ferguson has a different relationship to the written word—the one is a reporter, another is a very precocious young publisher, another is a memoirist and critic, a very, very personal memoirist, and the last, of course, turns out to be a novelist—how conscious of that were you in your approach to this novel with the various iterations on their relationship to writing?
Auster: One of the crucial decisions I made after I came up with the idea—before it had any form to it or any concrete characters—was that it would have been absurd for one of them to be an astronaut, for example, and another a cowboy, and the other a bank robber, and the other a priest. That wasn’t what I was trying to do. These boys are all genetically the same person. But the circumstances of their childhoods are all different. Sometimes subtly different, sometimes markedly different. After all, they have the same parents. And I have to say that the mother Rose is going to be Rose no matter what, whatever her circumstances. And so they’re all going to develop in a certain way. But within that there are graded nuances of difference. That was the territory I wanted to explore rather than radically different outcomes. So they all gravitate toward writing in one way or another. But as they grew up and developed, their personalities became altogether distinct—four absolutely separate characters: Number One is introspective, a bit morose, lacking in self-confidence. The injury he suffers as a high school student is very harmful to his development. He loses his nerve in a way and struggles. Number Two, on the other hand, is much tougher—a plucky, resilient kid who stands up to a year of bullying without being crushed by it. An effervescent soul, an 11-year-old boy with a wild sense of humor who can’t wait to publish his headline, “Fracas in Caracas.” Number Three, of course, loses his father, when he’s only seven years old, and he’s thrown into a state of tremendous confusion: emotional confusion, theological confusion, every kind of confusion. So, he’s the most unstable, the most lost of the boys, the one who gets into the most trouble, the one who even sexually is different from the others. And at the same time, to me, the most loveable of the four. Number Four is an angry young boy in deep conflict with his father. He’s so despairing of the state of his parents’ marriage (which eventually ends in divorce) that he makes himself very hard. This hardness is a tough thing for other people to live with. And it’s tough for him as well. He’s a person who can impose restrictions on himself, deny himself the things that he loves most out of some idea about the honorable life he wants to live—
Rail: Some principle.
Auster: Yes. And so ferociously committed to becoming a writer by the time he’s 15 or 16 that he’s almost unhinged.
Rail: He’s colder than the others.
Auster: As time goes on, he starts to loosen up a bit. But he’s different, he’s different. All four live inside the same body, but each one is traveling on his own separate road.
Rail: Well, I’ll quote another writer of fiction, and not just fiction: “We all fantasize and project ourselves into the future—this is really the origin of fictional activity: the projection of the self into the future. The future is a fiction.” Is there anything to that notion, do you think, and is that, in a way, a question at the heart of 4 3 2 1? By the way, the quotation happens to be by the novel’s dedicatee… It’s Siri.
Auster: [Laughter.] Yes, it sounded very familiar to me. I said, Who’s that brilliant person—I know that person. I think all of us as young people do feel that we’re trying to invent ourselves. We’re trying to figure out who we’re going to become. I’ve noticed there’s a difference between the generation I grew up in fifty years ago, sixty years ago, and the kids today, in that we all wanted to grow up fast. We wanted to become adults. People got married very young back then. Some of my friends married right out of college, 22 years old. And a lot of those marriages have lasted all these years. I see among the younger people—you know, we have a daughter who’s 29, so I’m well-acquainted with this new generation of kids—and I sense, especially among the boys, a reluctance to grow up, to take on responsibilities. It’s not even a criticism, it’s just an observation. How old are you?
Rail: Let’s see now. I am 38.
Auster: So you’re beyond all that. But do you know what I’m talking about?
Rail: Yes, certainly.
Auster: I’m not making it up, am I?
Rail: No, it has been noted. Culturally speaking. Could be nature or maybe it has something to do with societal circumstances. Now, breezing past protracted youth to the most important question of all: the automatic intentional walk.
Rail: Commissioner Manfred was on the air the other night saying that the idea was one from consultants outside the world of professional baseball. What is happening?
Auster: You probably aren’t aware of my little baseball experiment from a couple of years ago? It started in the summer of ’14. Manfred had been appointed commissioner but he hadn’t take over yet, and there was an article in the Times in which he said that his top priority would be to address “the length of game issue.” I wrote a letter to the Times with the following suggestion: Let batters walk to first base after three balls rather than four, and with two strikes, if the batter hits a foul ball, he’s out. Not only would it speed up the game, I believe it would create a better game.
Rail: Radical change.
Auster: Radical change. Baseball 2.0. Well, it turns out that I have a friend who until recently was a baseball writer for The Daily News, Andy Martino, and I asked him if we could approach a Major League team about trying out my rules during a spring training exhibition game. They all laughed at us. But Andy, diligent, intelligent fellow that he is, contacted the Atlantic League, which is an independent league, not affiliated with Major League Baseball. A good league, by the way, generally considered to be the equivalent of quadruple-A. And they said they would be interested in giving it a shot in one of their preseason games. Which led to the joyful experience, on April 28th, 2015, of my going out to Bellport, Long Island with Andy to watch the Long Island Ducks play the Bridgeport Bluefish in a game with my rules.
Auster: It was a two-hour, ten-minute game.
Rail: There you go: novelists passing legislation.
Auster: It was beautiful. A perfect spring afternoon. One of the most enjoyable afternoons of my life.
Rail: Without really spoiling much, I’ll note that the novel ends in deft fashion with Happy. I felt this ending, and it surprised me, as I suppose an ending should. The marriage bond that Nelson Rockefeller found in his life of hulking privilege while also making time to put his name on the deeply societally damaging Rockefeller Drug Laws. Was this the novel’s only ending?
Auster: Yes, the only ending. But it didn’t occur to me until I had written about two-thirds of the book. But once I had it, it didn’t change. “He was married to a woman named Happy.”
Rail: Most of what fluctuates in the different stories of Ferguson are the lives of Ferguson and the people he loves. And not the big spotlight events of his youth—not the World Series baseball games, not the lives of public figures. One big event that I did notice had changed, in the life of one Ferguson, is when Robert Frost goes to read the inaugural poem for Kennedy, an event that Ferguson sees on television, the sheaf of paper that it’s written on blows from his hand away from the podium. Whereas in our collective reality, verifiable online, Frost was unable to read the poem because the glare of the sun on the white page made it impossible. (Richard Nixon, in a show of bipartisan comity, attempted to shadow the page with his top-hat… but it did not work.) Should readers sees this subtle variation as your rendering of the butterfly effect: the music of chance whereby a change in one Ferguson’s life led to one thing which led to another which led to the poem slipping free from Robert Frost?
Auster: Let me confess—it was a mistake. Because I saw it. I saw the inauguration on TV as a 13-year-old kid. And I remember the paper flying out of Frost’s hand. But of course I misremembered it. Since I had witnessed the event myself, I didn’t bother to look up what really happened. I think it’s the only factual error in the book.
Rail: That’s fascinating.
Auster: But once I realized my mistake, I was happy to keep it in. I established four independent parallel worlds in the book, but a couple of times I broke my own rules on purpose. Howard Small and Andrew Fleming both appear in the lives of two different Fergusons because I didn’t want my imaginary worlds to be rigidly aligned. Pretty much, but not totally. I think it’s always interesting to break your own rules a little bit. So when I realized I had messed up with Robert Frost, I thought, So what? [Laughter.]
Rail: Finally, we’ve already alluded to this a bit, and I suspect it’s a maudlin question to ask of a writer of fiction, but as someone who grew up in the ’60s, what do you hope for the world of tomorrow?
Auster: What I hope for the world tomorrow—I hope that we can survive Trump. I have no idea what he’s cooking up for us. I have no idea how long he’s going to last. I’ll assume it’s going to be four years. Simply because the Republicans are in control of everything in Washington right now. On the other hand, if these investigations pick up steam and genuine treasonous activity is uncovered, then maybe the Republicans will start turning against him. I think he’s the most dangerous human being ever to walk down any boulevard in the United States.
Rail: As president of the United States.
Auster: It’s truly frightening. I’ve lived through a lot of political chaos in my life, but I’ve never seen anything like this. I think it’s necessary for all of us who oppose him to oppose him actively—we can’t be passive anymore. I’m hoping for a new age of activism in the United States. And the signs so far are encouraging. The marches have been thrilling. But also the low-to-the-ground actions that people all over the country are taking. The vigilance that I’m suddenly seeing among large numbers of people. We’ll see if it translates to a big turn-out in the 2018 elections, because if the Republican majority can be eaten into, if not overcome, then that would be a step in the right direction. Trump stands for everything I’m against. I can’t think of a single thing that he’s in favor of that I’m in favor of. The one small hope I had before he was inaugurated was that he was such an outsider that maybe he wouldn’t toe the right-wing Republican line. But he has. To such a degree that he’s adopted the most demented Republican approach: you get a Secretary of Education who doesn’t believe in public schools, you get an EPA director who doesn’t believe in climate change, you get an attorney general who is against civil rights, a health secretary who doesn’t believe in health insurance—on and on down the list. And pretty soon they’re going to dismantle the whole country. The other consolation, however, is their colossal ineptitude. They haven’t been able to get anything through yet, except executive orders. Which eventually can be undone, yet again, by another administration later. But the damage they’re doing is already frightening.
Rail: It’s a dark time, in many respects.
Auster: I oscillate between feeling some hope that we can push back against this and other times of real despair. Because we elected him. That’s the thing I still have trouble understanding.
Rail: The Electoral College elected him.
Auster: Well, by the rules that we play by, we elected him. I can understand that someone such as Trump can exist. But I can’t understand that over 60 million people voted for him.
Rail: It’s remarkable, the parallels of the politics between the ’60s and now, even down to the divisions within the left. I was struck in the novel where Ferguson One says, regarding Robert Kennedy’s candidacy, that he’s “distinctly unexcited.” Which I’m sure is an honest account of what it was like to be a student then. Yet, looking back on it, with nostalgia-tinted lens, it’s like, ‘How could you not be riveted by RFK?—that was our chance.’
Auster: Yes. Yes, but those were the times. The radical student left boycotted the 1968 election. They wanted no part of it. I myself, with great reluctance, voted for Humphrey. A lot of good it did me—or anyone else.
Rail: Here we are again.
Auster: Yes, I’m afraid so. Here we are again.