Book Review: The Music of Chance

Paul Auster is an author whose books I have recently discovered, courtesy a chat with David Israel. The chat was about synchronicity, following a post from a network member who claimed to be a collector of random incidences that took on varying degrees of significance. In this context David mentioned the author and a movie he had seen several years ago called –The Music of Chance– which was based on Auster’s book of the same name.

I looked for the book the next time I was in a bookstore and found it after a rather determined search. The back cover summary was intriguing enough to spark my interest and buying it was a decision I haven’t regretted. The author weaves meaning and significance into seemingly random events with such finesse that one is deeply interested and engaged from beginning to end.

Perhaps tastes aren’t that universal and one needs to be sufficiently intrigued or obsessed with finding a way to make sense of ostensibly random events or with forming associations and connections, to be thoroughly taken with the ways in which Auster ties a tale together. For those of us who are so inclined he can certainly weave a magic spell.

The Music of Chance is the story of Jim Nashe, the down and out protagonist, deserted by his fickle wife, who unexpectedly receives a large inheritance from his long estranged father. Leaving his three year old daughter in the care of his sister he invests in a new Saab and spends the next several months driving from the east coast to the west coast and back listening to his music as he drives, never absorbing the essence of any place, any destination, just driving on with passionate mindlessness, investing in hotels, books, music and gasoline, running down his inheritance until he is down to his last few thousands. He starts feeling a little alarmed then and just when he is wondering what to do next he comes across a kid who is badly battered and bruised and but continues to place one resolute step in front of the other as he stumbles along the road in the middle of nowhere. He picks him up, feeds, him, clothes him, offers him shelter and slowly as his new friend, a kid in his early twenties, Jack Pozzi, recovers and recuperates Nashe learns that the kid is an unbeatable whiz at poker. After convincing himself that the kid is really as good as he says, Nashe comes up with a plan to recover his lost fortune through poker. Pozzi suggests they play a couple of newly minted millionaires, Flower and Stone, who won their fortune on a shared lottery ticket and now lived together in a large home in Pennsylvania. Pozzi had beaten the duo before and is convinced that his luck will hold once again.

They set off to Pennsylvania to meet the odd couple, confident that they will emerge victorious and several thousand dollars richer after their adventure. This is when life as either one of them knew it, ceases to exist.

I wouldn’t want to give away the story and tell you exactly how The Music of Chance plays itself out, but I must mention what to me was a chilling metaphor embedded snugly within the story in the form of Stone’s impassioned art. Stone, a quiet, unassuming millionaire, a former optometrist, unveils his artistic creation while giving their new poker mates a tour of the house. A model city that takes up almost an entire room. It is his ideal city, a vision of the future that he is diligently modeling. It is populated with figurines of smiling and contented people going about their daily business. Not a single frown creases the brows of inhabitants in Stone’s make believe world. A world which isn’t necessarily crime free, as demonstrated by the city prison, but even the prisoners are content as they work at various chores while paying off their debt to society.

Utopian? Not necessarily. For the pleasant prison in this idyllic world still displays an anguished prisoner with his back to a wall. There is also a curiously empty spot within the city. When Stone is asked what would go up there he answers it would be a model of the house in which they currently reside, within which he plans to build a model of the model on which he is working and within the model of the model would be another room with an even smaller version of the model!

If Stone is obsessed with his own vision of the future, the other half of the millionaire duo, Flower, an ex-accountant, an arrogant man full of bluster is equally obsessed with the past. He has dedicated a large section of the house for relics from the past. He wants to possess the past with an ever-growing collection of objects – a pencil from Enrico Fermi’s pocket, Sir Walter Raleigh’s pearl earring, Woodrow Wilson’s desk phone and various others objects that have been brought together without context and without meaning. His crowning achievement is the import of 10,000 crumbling stones from a fifteenth century castle from western Ireland. When asked if he plans to rebuild the castle in his backyard he suggests he would rather build a magnificent wall, a monument. A wall that Nashe and Pozzi would never forget.

Our protagonist Jim Nashe and his young poker playing friend Jack Pozzi are the audience of two with whom Flower and Stone first share their vision of total control, in an amiable setting, and eventually expand their tentacles to envelop them and incorporate them completely within their visions. Visions where they possess the past, control the future and can manipulate the present as they deem fit. They are lethal predators who annihilate completely while displaying unquestionable amiability and magnamity. They are the parvenu masters of all they survey, their power is undeniable and complete.

The matryoshka doll like idea of a model within a model within a model actually plays out in a larger sense and in the reverse direction as Stone’s model takes on real life connotations for Nashe and Pozzi after they lose everything they own, and more, in a poker game and willingly sign their lives over to their master puppeteers. The unfolding tale is analogous to a pleasant faced matryoshka that upon closer inspection reveals an unmistakably sinister smile.

It’s a surreal account of Nashe’s failed life and Pozzi’s wasted life, lives that have reached an “irreducible separateness” and “isolation”, not much different from the meaningless relics from the past that Flower collects with a passion, forced to imitate Stone’s sinister art through an unforeseen ill-luck of the draw.

I would have preferred a different ending than the one at which the book arrives but the fine music of chance, so clearly audible here, makes for an immensely satisfying reading experience.

1 Comment

  1. I too would have preferred a different ending but thats why way it is with Auster isn't it? Perhaps that's where his talent lies. I enjoyed your review and agree on your points, like Stone's City of the World. Hardly utopian. http://litarture.blogspot.com/2008/11/indepth-book-review-of-paul-austers.html


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