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Insights from a person of questionable sanity

In depth book review of Paul Auster's 'The Music of Chance' - Part 1

Rating: 6 votes, 4.83 average.
NOTE: This is only the first half of the review, the full review can be read here:

The Music of Chance will always be one of the most memorable books I have ever read. Why? Because I've never found a book so disturbing (not even the likes of Ellis' American Psycho) that I had to stop reading it. I can even pin point the exact sentence I snapped shut the covers of the book and with it a most terrifying world, one that even Brave New World couldn't compare to.

But I did go back to it – noteworthy because I am rarely faithful. Like the protagonist of the novel, Jim Nashe, by the time I understood what was happening I was past the point of wanting it to end. It was only after many brave attempts and a two week lapse that I managed to muster the courage to face the ending. In that two week lapse I read - I'm ashamed to say - a romantic novel by Jude Deveraux. I loved the happy ending, the gorgeous hero and even the soft porn. Forgive me, I have sinned.

Both the elusiveness of the text and the elliptical narrative style will be familiar to fellow Auster fans. If you're looking for a compact novel with neatlty wrapped ribbons at the end, this book or anything by Auster for that matter, isn't for you. If however you're looking for a mental challenge, shivers down your spine (excuse the cliche, I doubt it will be the last) and an agonosing frustrating feeling which will trouble you even when you're trying to sleep then this novel is the book version soulmate for you.

What it all comes down to is chance and the order of events. ‘Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t’ (p2). It’s interesting that ‘chance’ means both good fortune/luck as well as its opposite - risk/hazard. If Jim Nashe hadn’t inherited by chance a substantial amount of money from his estranged father’s death then there would have been no chance of backing a poker player with a lumpy sum from the inheritance. What is at first good fortune becomes a hazard.

But if he’d only inherited that money just a month before his wife, Therese, left she wouldn’t have walked out on him; leaving him no choice but to take his daughter to his sisters. Free from responsibility he would not have quit his job, taken the wrong ramp on the motorway and therefore he would never have met Pozzi, the poker player. But even if hadn’t inherited the money at all she would never have left him if all his money wasn’t tied up in the rest home his mother had died in. And so on.

Chance meetings and occurrences, we are told, is quite common in Nashe’s life. Even his job as a fireman was the result of a chance encounter with a man he met in his job as a taxi driver. He talked Nashe into the taking the fire exam and he does so on a whim and achieves the highest grade that year. The other man was turned down but Nashe was offered a job. If we’re going to be very obvious and analytical the very essence of his job is governed by chance – you go on a job as a fireman and there is 50/50 chance you will return. It’s a risky business. Which he packs in and takes to travelling around America, just him, his car, his music and the open road and all its tantalising promises. The similarity to Keruoacs’s On the Road ends there, I promise. Actually I liked On the Road but that’s a journey for another time.

Jack Pozzi

A year and two days into this new lifestyle and with just over fourteen thousand dollars left he meets Jack Pozzi. Although generally Nashe refused to help hitchhikers (for obvious reasons) he cannot resist slowing down to observe this small, thin limping figure. It becomes apparent that Jack Pozzi isn’t drunk like Nashe first assumed but just badly beaten. ‘His clothes were torn, his face was covered with welts and bruises, and from the way he stood there as the car approached, he scarcely seemed to know where he was.’ (p19, Faber and Faber, 2006).

Despite what his instincts tell him, Nashe offers him a ride. And Pozzi accepts.

In case you’re thinking ‘this sounds familiar’ let me assure you that Pozzi does no turn out to be some psychopath who ties Nashe between two moving vehicles and rip him apart. That memorable scene is from The Hitcher – the 1986 version. Pozzie doesn’t butcher and decapitate Nashe. You’re wrong. So sit tight and read on.

Actually – talk about chance - I’ve just remembered Jim is the name of the man who offers the hitcher a ride and Nash is the pretty waitress he meets who is torn into half. Jim Nash(e). Wow. This can’t be a coincidence. Has anyone noticed this? Remember you read it here first! I think this calls for a separate post on some sort of comparison between the two. Maybe sometime next year. Sigh.

In the car, Pozzi and Nashe strike up an easy conversation. Pozzi explains that earlier in the evening he was in a poker game with lawyers and corporate hot shots. Towards the end of the game their poker game was hijacked and the thugs left with their money. Pozzi is blamed –

‘It’s just like I told you, Gil, you can’t bring riffraff into a game like this’
‘What are you talking about George?’ Gil says and George says ‘Figure it out for yourself, Gil. We play every month for seven years and nothing ever goes wrong. Then you tell me about this punk kid who’s supposed to be a good player and twist my arm to bring him up, and look what happens. I had eight thousand dollars sitting on that table and I don’t take kindly to a bunch of thugs walking off with it’ (p27)

Playing for seven years and not once anything out of the ordinary. The one time Pozzi comes along they are robbed! Is Auster making a point or what.

Pozzi informs Nashe that the day after tomorrow he has a poker game – one of the biggest games of his life. Now with no money and little potential money he’s going to have to pull out.

Now what do you think happened next? I mean here is a young man who claims to be an excellent impeccable poker player but has no money to enter the big game. Next to him you have Nashe, who has been on the road for quite a while, has quite a large lump of money left but not enough to continue funding his life on the road. Is the suspense killing you?

If it isn’t already obvious Nashe offers to help. Pozzi needs just under ten thousand pounds. Nashe tells him it’s a big risk, there is always the chance of losing to which Pozzi replies confidently ‘Sure there’s a risk. We’re talking poker here, that’s the name of the game. But there’s no way I could have lost. I’ve already played with those clowns once. It would have been a piece of cake.’ (p28).

The ‘clowns’ he refers to are two reclusive millionaires, Flower and Stone, ‘a regular comedy team’. Six or seven years ago they shared a lottery ticket and won twenty seven million dollars. Pozzi calls them Laurel and Hardy because one is fat and the other is thin. Seems fair enough to me. Nashe offers to help him out providing they split the profit 50-50. Pozzi agrees.

So ends chapter two. Chapter two I hear you exclaim. I write too much.

Nashe feels a change come over him immediately. Chapter three begins with the following words: ‘Nashe understood that he was no longer behaving like himself.’ He realizes that putting most of his money behind a foul mouthed impudent kid is risky but the risk motivates him: ‘It was a crazy scheme, perhaps, but the risk was a motivation in itself, a leap of blind faith that would prove he was finally ready for anything that might happen to him’ (p33). I love the idea of being ready for anything/something that MIGHT happen to you. Pozzi was simply a means to an end. Nashe was just going to use him and once that job was finished they would go their separate ways. What actually transpires is that Nashe becomes a fatherly figure of sort to the young man; they develop a close bond. But they do go their separate ways in the end. If you can call it that.

In New York they stay at the Plaza Hotel. Nashe pays for accommodation and food and takes Pozzi shopping for clothes.

Once Pozzi is safely tucked in bed, Nashe settles down with Rousseau’s Confessions. This is probably my favourite part of the novel. Just before he falls asleep he comes to the passage where the author is standing in a forest. He throws a stone at a tree, telling himself that if it strikes the tree his life will be better from this moment. However he misses. He moves closer to the tree and tells himself the same thing and throws the stone. Again he misses. He tells himself that was just a warm up and moves closer to the tree just to make sure he doesn’t miss. Again he reassures himself that if he strikes the tree his life will be better from that moment on. Now only a foot a away from the tree he strikes the tree. He doesn’t miss this time. Success! From this moment on life will be better, so he tells himself.

Nashe is moved and embarrassed by such naked self-deception and then falls asleep and dreams he is in the forest in which the wind sounds like shuffling cards.

By pinning his hopes on Pozzi is he deceiving himself like Rousseau? I’d say yes. Though he ‘tests’ Pozzi’s skills he is not entirely confident that they will win. He is deceiving himself and he knows it. Perhaps each stone Rousseau throws is like each hand at poker. You’ve lost this hand but never mind, you’ll win the next hand, or the next, or the next. And then everything will be fine. So you reassure yourself. I’m sure more can be said about this but I lack the eloquence.

Updated 02-25-2009 at 07:41 AM by optimisticnad



  1. kiz_paws's Avatar
    In that two week lapse I read - I'm ashamed to say - a romantic novel by Jude Deveraux. I loved the happy ending, the gorgeous hero and even the soft porn. Forgive me, I have sinned.
    Oh Opti, you have such a way with words, lol!

    Great book review.
  2. TheFifthElement's Avatar
    Now I love Auster, but The Music of Chance is one of his books I haven't got to yet. Oracle Nights is next on my list, but I think you'd have to go far to top The New York Trilogy which is one of my top reads of the year. You've definitely sold The Music of Chance to me (well, I was probably half way there anyway, but your review has definitely tipped me over ;p ). Thanks : )