This is a hefty book at 866 pages in the hardback edition. Not the longest book out there but a decent time commitment indeed. If I hadn’t had a week off work and three decent length train journeys, I may have waited to see if Auster made the Man Booker shortlist before deciding to invest.
I was also a little put off by the premise – one character but in four different versions. It brought Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us to mind and I found that book to be quite flawed and lacking in depth because of the constant flipping between strands. Auster’s version is far more successful, partly because of course he has taken so much more space to tell his story, but because he keeps to one protagonist and gives each strand time to bed in. The first chapter shades in the relevant family history that applies to each Ferguson incarnation:
According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, traveled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century. While waiting to be interviewed by an immigration official at Ellis Island, he struck up a conversation with a fellow Russian Jew. The man said to him: Forget the name Reznikoff. It won’t do you any good here… Tell them you’re Rockefeller, the man said. You can’t go wrong with that. An hour passed, then another hour, and by the time the nineteen-year-old Reznikoff sat down to be questioned by the immigration official, he had forgotten the name the man had told him to give. Your name? the official asked. Slapping his head in frustration, the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargesssen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.
Archibald Isaac Ferguson is born on March 3, 1947, only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson. From that point, his life takes four different paths – the same boy but living four different lives. Each strand takes Ferguson to live in a different location which means different friends, different schools. The family’s fortunes vary as Ferguson’s father decides whether or not to stay loyal to his brothers and the homeware store they own together. Some characters appear in all strands, family members and close family friends, but their impact upon Ferguson is less in one life than another, depending on who else is around him.
The reason this works is that each chapter is of a decent length. Spending thirty or so pages immersed in one Ferguson helps each individual story fix in the memory. Also, having each Ferguson grow up in a different town made it incredibly easy to pick back up (the four strands go round in turn). I also had the benefit of a four hour train journey which enabled me to read large amounts in one go – I think that, as with most books of this length, you can’t dip in and out, ten or so pages at a time.
The first five hundred or so pages were sublime. There were shocks, heartbreak, tragedy. Not all the characters survive and so you have the shock of mourning a death only to have that person reincarnated in the next Ferguson. Where I began to lose interest, and this is perhaps a personal issue, is that once Ferguson reaches college age the novel became quite bogged down in both politics (Vietnam war etc) and also in Ferguson’s attempts to become a serious writer. Reading about avoiding the draft and the college sit-ins is incredibly interesting the first time around, but multiple versions of the same became a little more tedious. And perhaps it was really that easy to get published in the late 60s/early 70s for someone with talent, but there is no struggle for Ferguson. People rave about his stories and rush to publish him. People rush to help Ferguson in all his incarnations and I sort of wanted him to fall on harder times, even just once.
All in all, this work is epic. It held my attention throughout, and I didn’t mind the ending, even though it was a little contrived. But to me that fit with the way this novel is constructed. I felt satisfied by the way Auster concludes Ferguson’s story and I almost think he deserves to make the Man Booker shortlist for his daring. This is a novel that could so easily not have worked, and yet it does.