End of an era

What the Harry Potter generation read next.

Let us imagine, for a moment, that your life is being novelised as a coming-of-age story for young adults. Let us also suppose that the author plans to centre the novel on the climactic moment where you finally realise your childhood is over and a world of responsibility beckons. How did your childhood end? Can you picture the scene? Was it one specific moment? Two? You saw both of mine live on television.

It is likely that ours will be remembered as the generation that smashed the windows of Foot Locker. But perhaps I can convince you to remember us also as the generation that formed orderly queues outside Waterstones and waited, dripping with excitement and rainwater, for the last Harry Potter book? When you saw us on the news, you were watching our childhoods end. We were in denial, though; cries of "we still have three films left!" were stifled only this summer, when you saw us in Trafalgar Square, waiting for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

So our childhoods really were over, and when things in the real world got too scary, there was nothing left of Harry Potter's world to hide in. We are a generation that needs fantasy. Unfortunately, it is likely you will remember us fulfilling this need with fantastically violent video games. But perhaps I can convince you to remember us also pulling fantasy novels off shelves and reading them on bookshop floors.

With Potter finished, the great hunt for more fantasy began. We re-read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. We tried Twilight along with everyone else, but slightly snobbishly turned our noses up at it, tweeting and blogging Stephen King's quote: "Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend." We tried Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, but having grown up with Hermione, Luna and Mrs Weasley as strong female role models, we struggled with female fantasy characters who existed only as a fantasy for teenage boys. Exasperated, we wondered if we were just too old.

But as the withdrawal grew worse, we finally found our fix. All three installations of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games trilogy had been published by 2010 and we hadn't read any of them, it seemed no one had read any of them. Someone prominent amongst the Potterheads tweeted or blogged or vlogged about it and suddenly it went viral. We were all talking about it, breathless and excited in the way we used to be. It was hypnotically fast-paced, set in a world so close yet so far from home, the heroine was full of flaws and so was the love story. There were characters of every age to adore and abhor. And were those some morals hiding between the lines? We had grown so used to feeling guilty about "fast-paced books" and "easy reads" - ' but, just as Potter had been, this was different and we handed it to our little brothers in the hope they would learn something from it.

Perhaps you will remember us as the generation that refused to pay for our music, but please remember that we also continued to spend our pocket money on books. They cost about £3 each on the Kindle - I downloaded and read three books in four days, then called a friend of mine and instructed him to do the same. "OK," he said, "I'm busy. I'll take a look later." My voice rose a little. "You don't understand. This is a book recommendation." The Potter generation is a tough crowd to please; I thought he might take me a little more seriously. "Yeah OK, I'll look it up later." I gripped the phone a little tighter. "I am recommending this book to you because I haven't been this excited about new fiction since Harry Potter." He was silent for a moment as he processed this. "OK. I'm buying it right now."

You see, teenagers don't use Twitter, Blackberry Messenger and "word of mouth" just to pass messages of fear and violence, but also to pass the message that magic, hope and excitement can still be found between the covers of a hardback novel.

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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