What if…


I’ve just finished reading 4321, a novel by Paul Auster (*spoiler alert*). And it’s brilliant. The book tells four alternative stories of the main character’s life. The novel is full of ‘what if’ storylines, showing how characters’ lives could have taken a different turn, full of reflections what of could have happened but didn’t.

The book is an invitation to reflect on the role of chance in our lives, on how our lives are not mapped out, there are any number of paths that you could take, and whether you do this or do that things could turn out differently. It is what one character describes as “a parable about human destiny and the endlessly forking paths a person must confront as he walks through life”.

Whilst reading 4321, I watched La La Land (*spoiler alert*). At the end is a scene where they show an alternative life that the two main characters could have had if things had gone differently when they first met in a bar. From that one chance encounter their lives fork off in different directions, in one version of their lives they get married and have a baby, in another they grow apart.

Sliding Doors is another film that shows two alternative lives of the main character. In the first, the main character misses a train. But what if she had caught that train? This is where her life forks between two different paths. Along one of her life’s possible paths, she catches the train and returns home to discover her partner having an affair. Along the other path, she misses the train, goes to catch a taxi, gets mugged and goes to hospital, and remains unaware of her partner’s affair.

Both these films show how things could have turned out differently if one small episode had gone differently — something as simple catching a train, or bumping into someone.

In one of the four stories within 4321, the main character (Ferguson) writes a book called “Right, Left, or Straight Ahead?” in which the main character Lazlo Flute arrives at a rural crossroads. Ferguson’s book goes off in each direction, telling Lazlo’s story as he goes along each of the three paths. “Right, Left, or Straight Ahead?” is almost 4321 in microcosm.

Yet in 4321, Auster takes this sort of thinking to another level. Rather than exploring just one fork in Ferguson’s life path, he reveals the multiple, near constant different turnings and paths that our lives could take.

In this way, the novel is closer to an idea sketched out by Borges in The Garden of Forked Paths. (In 4321 Ferguson reads Borges.) In this short story, a character has written a novel containing “all possible outcomes” of events, where each outcome is “the point of departure for other forkings”, resulting in characters having “diverse futures, which themselves also proliferate and fork”.

4321 tells of chains of events, where one thing happens by chance, and that something leads to other things happening:

  • What if Ferguson had driven the car instead of Francie, who crashes it?
  • What if Francie had turned left at the bottom of the hill, instead of right?
  • What if Ferguson hadn’t looked at Francie as she was driving and caused her “to turn her eyes from the road, for if she hadn’t glanced over to look at him, she would never have skidded on that patch of ice and crashed into the tree.”

Small forks can lead to paths which later go on to diverge significantly:

  • Different exam results could lead to a couple going to college in different cities, leading to them drfting apart and one of them falling in love with someone else.
  • If either Ferguson or his best friend “had been a slightly different person, they could easily have wound up as enemies.”

Conversely, forks can bring divergent paths together:

  • “Although Amy was supposed to have started the fifth grade in September, two days before the school year began she fell off a horse and broke her hip, and by the time the injury healed, it was already the middle of October, and so her parents decided to have her repeat the fourth grade instead of plunging her into a new school six weeks behind the other children in the class. That was how she and Ferguson wound up in the same grade together, the two of them born just three months apart but destined to have slightly different trajectories in school, but then the broken hip intervened, and their trajectories became identical.”
  • A couple got together “some years back when she was looking for a new place to live and had rented the garage apartment attached to her house. In other words, it has been an accidental meeting, something that never would have happened if she hadn’t stumbled across four lines of minuscule type in a newspaper, but not long after she settled in they had become friends, and a couple of months after that that they had fallen in love.”

And paths can fork between life and death:

  • What if that branch hadn’t fallen from the tree?
  • What if Ferguson’s medical records hadn’t been destroyed and he’d been drafted into the army for the war in Vietnam?
  • What if ___ had looked before crossing the road?

Forked paths in my life

Reading 4321 made me think about some of the forks in my own life, moments when my life could have taken a different turn, when things could have turned out differently.

Some of these forks relate to decisions I took, where I could have chosen differently, some relate to decisions other people took — the paths people take overlap, and our lives are dependent are the turns other people take.

Several of these forks involve alternative paths about my career:

  • What if my professor at university hadn’t suggested I join the civil service?
  • What if I had been successful in my interview with MI6?
  • What if I had been successful in getting a job in the EU institutions?
  • What if I had gone back to work in the House of Lords?
  • What if I had stayed in the Food Standards Agency?
  • What if my Google search for a job I’d seen and was planning to apply for at the Behavioural Insights Team hadn’t returned a role with a similar title at Elsevier?

Some are about friendships, love, and family:

  • What if I’d gone to the open day at Nottingham university, rather than leaving the campus with ____ to go to watch the nerby cricket test match at Trent Bridge?
  • What if ____ hadn’t seen me at the bar on our first night in Sheffield?
  • What if I’d gone to hockey training during my first week at university?
  • What if I hadn’t gone with ____to see Jon Pleased Wimmin play at Feel?
  • What if ____ and I hadn’t sat together for dinner when house hunting at the end of our first year at university?
  • What if the market pub had been open?
  • What if the other people bidding for the house where we live had raised their offer and bought it?

Some are about lives that might or might not have been:

  • What if ___ had still been in the car not wearing a seatbelt when I had the accident?
  • What if the morning after pill hadn’t worked?
  • What if we hadn’t had that miscarriage?
  • What if my parents hadn’t met as they did? (My Mum loves telling the story of them bumping into one other at the top of some stairs.)

The number of forks is infinite, and sometimes it is difficult to identify a fork until after the event, when you look back.

4321 is a beautifully written book, with long sentences that pull you along. It has a unique narrative structure. I loved reading it, and it has helped me reflect on the role of chance in my life.

Senior Director @ElsevierConnect doing product strategy implementation & performance. Mainly writing about getting from A to B, & digital stuff. Personal acc’t.