Mad Men: series 5, episode 5

Oh, what a fight.

Ah, the Pete episode. It’s the one we’ve been waiting for, and what twisted joy was on offer as Matthew Weiner steered us from the Campbells’ suburban hell of a dinner party, to a Manhattan brothel, to a fist fight in the boardroom. Pete, as Lane Pryce observes just before he challenges the young pretender to a scrap, has become a monster of late, drunk on power. Roger and Lane, the ageing partners, feel it most acutely and they've both perfected that look: the one that says, with a twinge of sadness, who the hell does this punk think he is, and when did I get so old? Pete’s scorn has become his trademark, but it’s fuelled by desperation. He’s hungry for recognition, for success, for the sexual attention of a teenage girl he meets at a driving safety lecture – but more than anything he’s desperate for Don, for his friendship and approval. Pete’s tears in the lift, spilling out of his quickly blackening eyes, are the tears of a child exhausted by humiliation.

Friendship threads through the episode – Don’s lack (Megan points out that she was forced to invite his accountant to his birthday party); the revelation of a pact between Ken and Peggy, that if one leaves the firm the other goes with them; Joan carrying a bucket of ice into Lane’s office post-fight (only for him to ruin their moment of solidarity by lunging like a fool). All these little alliances and kindnesses fill in the sad picture of Pete’s isolation. He is lost in the suburbs, his wife enamoured by a new baby, and he is friendless at work, where everyone who he’d call a friend loathes him. He consoles himself by role-playing with a prostitute (she gets it right when she calls him a king), and trying to seduce a teenager – all ways of pretending to be the alpha male he wishes he was. But neither works: he is furious with drunken shame after the brothel visit (where Don abstained) and watches helpless and humiliated as the teen falls for a kid her own age (called Handsome).

Poor Pete. That Weiner can retain our sympathy for a character so slippery and loathsome is testament to his writing, and the skill of the actor, Vincent Cartheiser. In the first series, I remember finding the performance absurd, false and posturing. But Pete’s unravelling, in the hands of Cartheiser, has been slower and subtler than most, and his scenes of true revelation – the agonising meeting with his father, or when Peggy tells him about their baby – show the tenderness beneath all that tortured swagger.

And oh, what a fight. There have been a few punches, or near-punches, in Mad Men – Don thumping Jimmy Barrett, Don trying and failing to thump Duck – but I don’t think there has been a fight quite as agonisingly prolonged and hilarious as that between Lane and Pete: two skinny men with their fists raised, making sure their ties are out of the way, rocking on their feet in their smart office shoes. It’s undignified, and a great comic skewering of macho business culture (listened to, disbelievingly, by Joan and Peggy through a wall). You watch Mad Men for scenes like this: high drama, an element of farce, a sense of something fundamentally shifting beneath the surface. Saying that, there are still scenes which seem a little overstated – did Don really have to rip off his shirt to tackle Pete’s broken kitchen sink in a Superman frenzy of manliness as Pete rifled forlornly through his toolbox? We get it: Don’s still got it, and Pete, poor Pete, is a shadow of a man, grasping at a life.

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Vincent Kartheiser as Pete in Mad Men

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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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