In the critics this week

Catch-22, the arms race in medieval relics and the action film with only one punch.

The "Critic at Large" this week is Daniel Swift, writing on the enduring relevance of Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22. "One recurring joke," Swift writes, "is about army canteen food. For lunch one day, the airmen have roast lamb with 'Iranian rice and asparagus tips Parmesan, followed by cherries jubilee for desert and then steaming cups of fresh coffee with Benedictine and brandy', all served by kidnapped Italian waiters at tables dressed with damask. The joke is surely that army food is so bad. Pause, however, and scroll forward to other wars in later times, to now. During the Iraq war, American soldiers stationed at al-Asad Airbase, west of Baghdad, could choose their dinner from Burger King, Pizza Hut or Kentucky Fried Chicken... Now, the joke changes; now, the novel points at us."

In this week's lead book review, Stefan Collini examines Thomas Docherty's For the University: Democracy and the future of the Institution:"Docherty fears that the university is now being treated as a 'menial service-provider for this vague world of business.' The whole agenda of 'transferable skills', for instance, 'diverts attention away from the specifics of academic or intellectual content' towards capabilities thought to appeal to employers."

The Books Interview this week is with Chris Adrian, who has reworked Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in his latest novel, and speaks about his experience as a paediatric oncologist.

Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre's book Ed: the Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader is reviewed by Roy Hattersley, who judges that the authors "skim the surface of almost everything in what is less a book than an exercise in sustained journalism, with all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre."

Helen Lewis-Hasteley reviews Caitlin Moran's feminist autobiography, finding that "while How to be a Woman might not have the anger or urgency of The Female Eunuch, it certainly has more jokes. And perhaps that's what modern feminism needs."

Elsewhere, Jonathan Derbyshire reports on the "Treasures of Heaven" exhibition of medieval relics at the British Museum, Antonia Quirke listens to Aung San Suu Kyi's Reith Lectures on Radio 4, and Tom Ravenscroft reorganises his podcasts, having acquired a new computer.

Film critic Ryan Gilbey examines A Separation, a film in which "only a single punch is thrown," despite being billed as "the year's most explosive action movie", and Rachel Cooke has an olfactory reminiscence occasioned by the BBC4 documentary Perfume.

Finally, lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson gives Alan Hollinghurst's latest novel the once over, noting that it has a striking resemblance, in the early chapters at least, to Ian McEwan's Atonement. "The difference is that Atonement turns out to be a parody of a novel by Elizabeth Bowen, whereas The Stranger's Child turns out to be a parody of a novel by Alan Hollinghurst."

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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