A giant soapbox

In the wake of extensive debate earlier this year, the pressure is on for Jay-Z at Glastonbury this weekend: detractors questioned the rapper's suitability to headline the Pyramid Stage this Saturday, which Jay-Z and others responded to by pointing out the thinly-veiled racism behind many of the comments. But he isn't the only artist hitting back at whinging festival-goers: the New York Times reports that Kanye West recently posted a response on his website to audience members at the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee, who booed him when he moved his performance back several hours so that it was dark enough to properly display his light show. Frustrated at waiting so long, the Bonnaroo audience reportedly scrawled anti-West graffiti and made makeshift placards, including the somewhat incongruous 'Kanye hates hippies!'. In a tone that sounds more hurt than vitriolic, West wrote in response:"call me...arrogant, conceited, narcissistic...BUT NEVER SAY I DIDN'T GIVE MY ALL!"

Elsewhere, the film director Pedro Almodóvar hit back at a piece in the Guardian that stated his dominance of Spanish cinema had hindered other Spanish films' chances with British audiences, writing "it is deeply unfair, and also rather silly, to blame me for an absence of Spanish films at UK cinemas", adding "please, ask British distributors why they aren't buying Spanish films." Guardian online film editor Catherine Shoard apologised for the misunderstanding the earlier article had caused, and stated "the only crime I believe the article accused Mr Almodóvar of was excellence."

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The latest work of art to fill Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth was revealed this week to be a giant soapbox, on which members of the public can do or say what they like for exactly one hour. The project, created by sculptor Antony Gormley, will begin next spring, and those who wish to participate will be able to apply online. Admittedly, the online applicants will be "vetted" before being assigned their hour on the stand, but the team behind the project have argued that this is simply to avoid speakers who would incited racial hatred or violence. The announcement of Gormley's project was met with the predictable criticisms that all proposals for the Fourth Plinth seem to face: one poster on the Times website snapped "we should leave the empty plinth vacuous as a tribute to the current state of British art"

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For a man whose career has so far largely entailed designing marble bathroom suites, Florence-based architect David Fisher seemed very confident that his skyscraper to be built in Dubai was structurally sound. His rotating tower will apparently involve individual floors spinning around a central core, offering each room a complete 360 degree view over a period of time. Although undeniably an innovative work of art, many have expressed their doubts as to whether Dubai needs any more lavish residential skyscrapers - while others expressed concerns over the fact that, according to Qatar Living, the rotation of most of the rooms will be controlled by the artist's laptop.

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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