Have you dared to tackle This 880 Page Book?
(NOTE: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, Lorie will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase on Amazon. Thank you for supporting Lorie’s writing in this manner. More details here.)
I must offer a disclaimer as I write this review: I love Paul Auster’s work and have read almost every word he has in print. To me, he is some sort of literary god. I particularly love that he has autobiographical books in print that inform his fiction. I also love that he finds ways to wink at his fans by repeating elements in books for our delight such as the often-mentioned red notebook. And yes, there is a red notebook in this novel. It’s SCARLET, Paul Auster tells us, like the letter emblazoned on Hester Prynne’s blouse. It also provided a chuckle to see some of Auster’s previous characters like David Zimmer and Marco Fogg (from Moon Palace) have cameo roles here.
I had heard that the book was about a character named Archie Ferguson, and that I would be treated to four different versions of his life, four different roads he might have taken. In my mind, I figured Auster would tell one of the Archie’s lifetimes completely before moving on to the second, third, and fourth iterations. Instead, we get chapter 1.0, which tells the back story for all of the Archies. They share the same grandparents and parents and we learn about these people in great detail. But then we branch out into chapter 1.1, then 1.2, then 1.3, then 1.4. And thus, the lives of the Archies begin to go in different directions. By the time we get to chapters 7.1, 7.2, 7.3, and 7.4, a couple dozen years have passed and the book ends.
If you buy the hardback book, the book jacket explains this to you. If you download a version from the library as I did and get no “packaging,” I just saved you a lot of confusion of this sort: Wait, I thought Archie’s father’s store was robbed not that it burned down? Wait, I thought Archie’s uncle’s wager on baseball paid off royally not that he lost everything? What’s going on here?
Of the many Archies, my favorite was #3, the boy who was seven when he lost his father in a fire at the father’s home appliance store. The “curious interregnum” he and his mother experience in the aftermath of this loss is heartbreaking. His experiment to find out if God existed was likewise wrenching. And when at last he explained the experiment to his mom, and they finally cried together over the loss of his father, well, I cried too. By the way, the dad’s last words to Archie were, “It’s gonna be a cold day, Archie. Wear a scarf.” It was a stab in my heart every time these words echoed in Archie’s mind. Suffice it to say, this loss follows Archie #3 all the days of his life.
Another Archie I cared about was #4. This boy borrowed a chapter from Auster’s real life when he witnessed the death of a friend at camp. In real life the boy was struck by lightning. In the novel, the boy suffered an aneurism after strenuously practicing baseball on a hot day. Archie Ferguson (A.F.) felt very close to this boy, Artie Federman (A.F.), so he goes on to write a story about the experience called, “Sole Mates” as opposed to “Soul Mates.” The story is told from the point of view of a pair of shoes, Hank and Frank. This story-within-a-story is typical of Paul Auster and it’s wonderful! And as you can imagine, writing about it does not get it out of his system, and this loss follows Archie #4 all the days of his life.
As you can tell, terrible things happen to all of the Archies, and I felt a bit upset with Auster for playing God in such a severe manner. In the same way that many of the Archies in the book contemplated God, this caused me to follow suit. It also caused me to be anxious – continuously – about what horrible thing Auster would do to his characters next. (Would Andy Cohen come back to haunt Archie #3?)
Clearly, there are a lot of compelling stories in this book. However, there were two aspects of the book that did not appeal to my tastes. First, all of the Archies thought a lot about sex. Archie #3, for example, regularly stole and then sold books to raise the $25 it cost to visit a prostitute. Instead of saying there was too much sex in the book, I’ll just say that if that’s what it’s like to be a teenage male, I am thrilled to be a female.
The second issue was that Auster gave too much history of the era particularly the war in Vietnam and the race riots of the 1960s. In a review of the book that appeared in the New York Times, reviewer Tom Perrotta called it a, “textbook-style rehashing of the political turmoil of the ‘60s.” I have to agree.
This book is 880 pages in the hardcover version. I listened to it as an audio book – with Paul Auster himself as the narrator – for 36 ½ hours. So, though I love the man and think he is a literary god, perhaps a bit of editing would have been nice.
But then, what editor would dare to edit God?
Like my book reviews? Try my blog! FREE gift to new subscribers: a downloadable booklet of motivational quotes, Some Do’s and Don’ts in Life.