Tuesday, February 19, 2013

529. The Music of Chance – Paul Auster

History: This book was published in 1990.
Plot: Jim Nashe is a fireman with a two-year-old daughter and wife who has just left him. Knowing he cannot work and raise a child at the same time, he sends her to live with his sister. Six months of sporadic visits pass and Nashe realizes that his daughter, Juliet, has begun to forget him. Suddenly, the father that abandoned Nashe as a child dies, leaving his son and daughter a large amount of money. Nashe, knowing that Juliet will be happier with her aunt, pays off all of his debts, buys a Saab and pursues "a life of freedom" by spending a year driving back and forth across the country.
His fortune now squandered, Nashe picks up a hot-headed young gambler named Jack Pozzi. The two hatch a plan to fleece a couple of wealthy bachelors in a poker game. Coincidently, the two marks, Flower and Stone, obtained their fortune by gambling (winning the lottery). In addition to purchasing a mansion, the two eccentrics also bought ten thousand stones, each weighing more than sixty pounds. The stones were from the ruins of a fifteenth-century Irish castle destroyed by Oliver Cromwell; Flower and Stone intend to use them to build a "Wailing Wall" in the meadow behind their mansion.
Unfortunately, Flower and Stone are not the suckers Pozzi takes them for and the plan backfires. Having run out of money Nashe decides to risk everything on "a single blind turn of a card" and puts up his car as collateral against the pot. He loses and the two indenture themselves to Flower and Stone as a way to pay back their debt. They will build the wall for Flower and Stone, a meaningless wall that nobody will ever see. For the rest of the novel, Flower and Stone are conspicuously absent. Nashe shrugs this off as fifty days of exercise, but Pozzi views it as nothing less than a violation of human decency.
The two men are watched over by Calvin Murks, the millionaires' tough but amiable hired man. When Pozzi takes a swing at Murks for cracking a joke about being too smart to play cards, Murks begins wearing a gun. Pozzi sees this as proof that he is nothing but a slave.
Even after the two men have completed working off their debt, the millionaires add on the charges the men have accrued as a result of living at the estate. Pozzi, convinced there is no way out of the contract, escapes the meadow. Nashe finds his young friend sprawled on the grass a day later, beaten into a coma. Murks claims innocence and takes Pozzi to a hospital while Nashe continues to work. Two weeks later, Murks tells Nashe that Pozzi checked himself out of the hospital and vanished, but Nashe is convinced that his friend died from his injuries.
Time passes, the wall grows and Nashe gets more and more obsessed with taking revenge on Murks, since Flower and Stone have become too distant to bear the immediacy of his hatred. When Nashe has completed enough work on the wall to pay off his debt, Murks and his son-in-law Floyd take Nashe out to celebrate. Nashe beats Floyd in a game of pool, but refuses the fifty dollars he has won; Floyd accepts this, saying that he owes Nashe a favor. Soon after, the three men pile into Murks's new car (Nashe's old Saab) with the slightly more sober Nashe behind the wheel. Nashe promptly takes the car up to eighty-five miles an hour and collides with another vehicle.
Review: There may be some doubt as to whether Paul Auster really means to be a novelist at all. Like Julian Barnes, though with infinitely greater success, he has used the form of the novel as a shell for intellectual speculation of one kind or another. His most brilliant effects have been achieved by his reworkings of the mystery in "The New York Trilogy," where the formalism of the genre also does much to specify the plot. Mr. Auster's latest novel, "The Music of Chance," seems however to have taken a picaresque model, whose form is less distinctly defined.
Jim Nashe, a Boston fireman, is catapulted into existential uncertainty by a couple of inadvertencies: his desertion by his wife, Therese, and the death of his estranged father, who leaves him a surprisingly sizable legacy. He sells all his possessions, parks his daughter, Juliette, with his sister's family in Minnesota, stocks his Saab with classical cassettes and takes to the road:
"Speed was of the essence, the joy of sitting in the car and hurtling himself forward through space. That became a good beyond all others, a hunger to be fed at any price. . . . As long as he was driving, he carried no burdens, was unencumbered by even the slightest particle of his former life. That is not to say that memories did not rise up in him, but they no longer seemed to bring any of the old anguish. Perhaps the music had something to do with that, the endless tapes of Bach and Mozart and Verdi that he listened to while sitting behind the wheel, as if the sounds were somehow emanating from him and drenching the landscape, turning the visible world into a reflection of his own thoughts. After three or four months, he had only to enter the car to feel that he was coming loose from his body, that once he put his foot down on the gas and started driving, the music would carry him into a realm of weightlessness."
All Nashe wants is to preserve this state of orbital nullity, which is inherently unstable and begins to decay as his money decreases. With $14,000 left in the stash in the Saab's glove compartment, he meets Jack Pozzi, a young and feckless down-on-his-luck gambler, who presents himself as "an opportunity in the shape of a human being, a card-playing specter whose one purpose in the world was to help Nashe win back his freedom." Nashe agrees to back Pozzi in a poker game against Bill Flower and Willie Stone, a couple of fabulously wealthy lottery winners, supposed to be easy marks.
This pair occasions the sort of tour de force of eccentricity and obsessionalism at which Mr. Auster most excels. During a tour of their baroque mansion in rural Pennsylvania, the fat and garrulous Flower, a former accountant, expatiates at length on the proposition that "numbers have souls" (so that what seems to be chance may not be at all), while the compact and monosyllabic Stone merely indicates the miniaturized City of the World that he is building, including replicas of his own house and minuscule figures of himself and his friend, and describes his plan to build a second model within the model, so creating an infinite recession.
There's something obscurely offensive to Nashe about "such extravagant smallness," and while the game is in progress he sneaks back and steals the miniatures of Flower and Stone. By chance or in consequence, Pozzi's luck fails; Nashe stakes the Saab on him and loses, then crashes $10,000 into debt on a single cut of the cards. Flower and Stone, whose model city includes images of both comical roguery and dire punishment, are not amiable about the situation. Nashe and Pozzi find themselves compelled to remain on the estate, hand-building a stone wall of Egyptian magnitude, working for an hourly rate until the debt is repaid.
The rest of the story revolves around Nashe's gradual recognition that by following the appealing rhythms of chance he has landed in a rigidly determined system: "Sometimes, powerless to stop himself, he even went so far as to imagine that he was already living inside the model. Flower and Stone would look down on him then, and he would suddenly be able to see himself through their eyes -- as if he were no larger than a thumb, a little gray mouse darting back and forth in his cage." Within this sinister predicament, Nashe is eventually able to regain the zero state he most desires, "for even the smallest zero was a great hole of nothingness, a circle large enough to contain the world."
Mr. Auster has succeeded admirably in dressing up this very abstract situation. But, diverging from the tactics of his earlier work, he has also tried to mix the unreality of Nashe, Flower and Stone with a more realistic portrayal of other characters, and here the results are less fortunate. Nashe's sometime girlfriend Fiona, a hooker called Tiffany and especially Pozzi are not rendered well enough to convince. Pozzi's monologues are shakily, inconsistently written and, unfortunately, too much hangs on his role as a credible and engaging picaro, for Nashe comes to see him as a sort of alter ego: "Once a man begins to recognize himself in another, he can no longer look on him as a stranger." So the failure of this characterization is a serious flaw.
The haphazard wandering of the plot, random as the path of Nashe's Saab, may be less problematic, since it can be justified by the title and subject, though the reader may miss the elegant formal recursions of "The New York Trilogy." Still, its rambling path does lead the book to a convincing statement of Mr. Auster's insistent theme that Nashe's identity, or anyone's, is not an innate quality or even a fixed one, but is instead a product of surrounding circumstance.
Opening Line: “For one whole year he did nothing but drive, traveling back and for the as he waited for the money to run out.”
Closing Line: “And the light was upon him, and Nashe shut his eyes, unable to look at it anymore.”
Quotes: “You had to invent something. It's not possible to leave it blank. The mind
won't let you.”
Rating: Awesome

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