This is another wonderful book that goes beyond the typical story arc, and helps the reader to think beyond the detail of the plot and character.
The work starts in the mind of a young boy, Ferguson, and his observations on the world and how people behave. To me, this was almost tedious, but then gradually, (slowly, in several of the novel’s versions of Ferguson’s life), growing up. There is a variety of vivid characters and lively action, quickly becoming a good read, and repeating this as another version unfolds.
Note: the dates at the beginning of each chapter are important to remember, although pale in script. It helped me to keep track of who’s who, and what’s where.
Somewhere in the novel something is written about how Ferguson sees himself as having several selves, and the novel itself takes this further into many stories, more than merely versions of the story of this boy growing into a man.
Auster could have written it as several novels with several young men having different life events and reactions. I asked myself: how would this dilute the power of Auster’s work?
A clue may lie in a hint about the “Ferguson wanted to test himself against the unknown and see if he could survive the struggle.”
An answer might be that through seeing a life with several possible outcomes raises questions about the fragility of our existence. One second – a crash, a love affair, a political event – and we become someone else, and there forms an expanding range of people and events that colour that self, its reactions, beliefs, dreams and fulfilment.
Auster adds to that by writing about writing. This is one of many perspectives or levels in the work.
Ferguson has a “Scarlet Notebook”, which is a breakdown of the writing mental process, into minute details:
“In the scarlet notebook are all the words that have yet to be spoken and all the years of my life before I bought the scarlet notebook.”
It made sense to me. In writing a story so often the author explores many avenues of plot, character and philosophical meaning. The author (or the editor) finally skims off one or two coherent themes and discards the rest. Auster hasn’t done that here, he’s included them all. Or perhaps there were even more and he still needed to discard.
Another answer may be that the book is a metaphor for the drive, the need, to write. Ferguson writes that writing is “…an instrument for entering imagined spaces, images so vivid and tangible that they take on the appearance of reality.”
There is a warning that most writers need to give to readers: Ferguson notes that “Not everything … is what it seems to be. The New York that dwells inside it, for example, is not the New York of my waking life.”
There are thoughtful workings of significant themes – race e,g the meaning of a punch and resolution, or Ferguson’s erotic admiration of Albert’s body. Also, politics and political deviousness. This narrative forms the plot action to life at university for Ferguson at one point and is significant in the process of losing the possible love of his life.
However the most striking for me was the focus on love in many forms, relationships and there slow or rapid development, with the suddenness and devastation of betrayal and loss. The complex pattern of loving or uncaring behaviour between husband and wife, child and mother, child and father, and the family together. Step-families, step-parents, step-siblings as well.
Auster is a brilliant, perceptive writer of character. They are distinctively individual, with detailed physical aspects, personality and action. There is open expression of emotions between Ferguson and the other, with discretion and sensitivity to undercurrents. This is an extraordinary feat with so many plot versions.
For example, the deviousness of Ferguson at various points (and the exact opposite at other times), and that of other characters. This is hard to adjust to. The mark of a good writer is that the reader comes to live with and love the characters. This comfort is challenged. For some also there may be challenge in the homoeroticism in some of Ferguson’s versions.
Another dimension of the work is the range of intellectual references and understanding of historical figures in every discipline of intellect.
The deep engagement of the reader is supported by all the details of setting in different periods: from furniture, equipment, and furnishings to lists of films, authors, actors, sport and political figures. And an apparent working knowledge of the daily mechanics of various businesses and trades supports the utter involvement of the reader in Ferguson and his lives.
A true literary and contemporary fiction work.