Lost in the Barbican

The site-specific play "Would Like to Meet" turns its audience into performers.

Fond as I am of London's Barbican Centre, I can never seem to find my way out, or indeed sometimes the way in. So it was with some misgivings that I signed up to non zero one's site-specific performance Would Like to Meet, which requires some guided wandering around the dreaded Labyrinth. In truth this is not, strictly speaking, the site-specific theatre that some might expect.

Would Like to Meet is really neither a specific response to the building's fabric nor a wild subversion of it. It is a much more pedestrian affair, in the literal sense, and a much more personal one. Participants are directed up anonymous stairways, past recycling bins, through doorways of what could have been Anywhere inc. What subversion there is, is of a gentler sort: there is a pleasing twist to the notion of such participatory drama - where the spectators are the performers - taking place in the marginal, public spaces of a theatre, outside the auditoria. Everything is playfully turned inside out.

The audience size is tiny, with only six punters allowed at any one time. Each is given a pair of headphones and an MP3 player and then follows a colour-coded, tailored itinerary, which at times intersects with other members of the group. The format does engender a certain amount of performance anxiety, which in my case was not entirely unjustified. Without giving too many specifics away, I was asked to dismantle a bit of kit, failed miserably, and consequently the chap in the adjacent booth did not get quite the experience he'd been led to expect. Who knows, maybe the muffled cursing behind the arras weaved its way into his narrative. It goes to show, however, that the finest of logistical tuning can be ballsed up by human error.

Our highly visible earphones were easily identifiable, a costume of sorts, which gave a bizarre legitimacy to our wanderings. I found the people swilling round the Barbican looking on intrigued at the participants, as we were scenically dotted about the place, or engaged in a mildly out of place transaction. And conversely everyone becomes a performer, a bit part in our own drama, as we gaze down at the foyer, not just the actor-plants that the theatre company have put in place.

It's a strangely comforting sensation, to be guided round a building by a disembodied voice, which is part audio tour-guide, part psychotherapist. Following the instructions confers a protective cocooning, as we take a mini break from decision-making.

More searching questions could have been asked here about the lengths we will go to when we are simply asked by an authoritative voice. But this would be to go beyond non zero one's remit, which concerns itself with a much quieter exploration of our interaction with strangers, our snap assessments, and the rich and varied biographies of those at whom we barely glance.

But the mind will wander, and some of the most innocuous suggestions can be met with stubbornness and even downright mutiny. One participant reflexively disliked his "voice" and so was ill disposed to do anything it asked. Consequently I'm not convinced we squarely tackled the agenda of these young Royal Holloway graduates, who earnestly ask "can you miss someone you've never met?" However it did become clear at the end of the forty-five minutes that there was a certain heterogeneity of experience amongst the participants, some of whom had been led down quite different routes. I found myself rather envious of their emotional, even haunting moments. If only I had picked a different colour!

Conceptual pieties about exploring "absence . . . memories and stories" aside, at least I now know my way round the Barbican.

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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