Italian American food, or American Italian? Image: Getty
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Will Self on how to rescue our lives from marketers and margherita pizzas

To examine the photographs in Little Frankie’s with attention would be to rescue all these lived lives from the great shingly erosions of late capitalism. But let’s just eat junk food at low prices instead.

A mannish-looking woman in a white blouse buttoned to the collar and a straight black skirt kneels in the foreground of an undistinguished tract house, clutching a three-year-old girl about the waist so that her rigid crinoline skirt tips up on one side. They both look pained and the shot isn’t particularly well composed – a telegraph pole rises up out of the woman’s head.

Some years ago Nicholson Baker wrote a fine essay for the New Yorker on the books used as props in the Ralph Lauren mail order catalogue. Baker’s point – in analysing the disjunction between these bought-by-theyard volumes and the off-the-peg shmatte draped around them – was that the book had become a symbol of a form of leisured cultivation aspired to by the sort of people content to be accessories to the brand; in short, these were books that did even less than furnish a room – they furnished the idea of a room that one might have, were one to stop spending all one’s money on tacky designer clothing.

The same could be said of the photographs framed and stuck up on the walls of the Little Frankie’s that we ate in the other evening. These are emphatically not meant to be looked at, let alone analysed – these are images that should be merely glanced at, and so subliminally assimilated to the desired commercial gestalt.

In a way, to examine the photographs in Little Frankie’s with attention – with sympathy and reverence, even – would be to rescue all these lived lives from the great shingly erosions of late capitalism; as someone might pick up small pieces of smoothed bottle glass from the beach, take them home, put them in jars filled with water and, placing these on the windowsill, observe how the sunlight transforms such undistinguished lumps into glowing jewels. But, hell, everyone’s life is too short, eh? So let’s just eat junk food at low prices instead.

Little Frankie’s is the cadet arm of the mighty Frankie & Benny’s chain, which has over 200 outlets in the UK. The only thing that distinguishes them is their piccolo size, otherwise they offer up the same shtick: a cod version of the cultural miscegenation that on their website is styled variously “New York Italian” or “Italian American”, but which at the branch where we found ourselves was detailed – as one of my sharp-eyed sons pointed out – “American Italian”.

I’d like to think that this was because someone high up in The Restaurant Group (the plc that owns the chain, along with Garfunkel’s and Chiquito) had come to the conclusion either that: a) such now is the degree of assimilation that it should be reflected in their terminology, or b) they need to dissociate themselves from all the usual Italian- American clichés – DiMaggio, Sinatra, The Sopranos, blah, blah, yech.

But the reality is almost certainly that a middle-ranking marketer had focus-grouped the reversed couplet and found out it played better with punters, such – as I believe I’ve already pointed out – is life. In Little Frankie’s, the bubblegum Fifties pop played nonstop and I wondered what our waitress – who admitted to me she came from Pisa – made of it all. The marketing department long ago (1995, when the first branch opened in Leicester) concocted a backstory: the eponymous Frankie, aged ten, moved from Sicily to Little Italy in New York in 1924 and a year later his parents opened a restaurant . . . blah, blah, yech. I can’t believe anyone devotes any more headspace to this than they do to the flash-bulbed revenants they see on their way down to the chequerboard-tiled toilets. There may be dark wood floors and bentwood chairs and “granite-effect” tabletops at Little Frankie’s, but so far as I could see, the only evidence of a sense the clientele were involved with was taste.

The same sharp-eyed boy said his margherita pizza “thinks it’s better than it is”; a strange remark that I think was occasioned by it being covered with slices of actual tomato rather than just the purée he favours. The other son said that his burger was shit and his onion rings were shit, and the extra hot dog we ordered was also shit, but that he’d eaten them all because he was so hungry. For myself, I didn’t mind my tough little steak – and when I complained about the cold chips, the waitress obligingly brought me a dish of chips so hot that, had we been in an Italian-American restaurant, I’d have suspected the chef of trying to whack me. Bravissimo!

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “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, travelled 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.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era