Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance

This novel was first recommended to me by a stranger at a party in the early 1990s. It’s probably best to learn about this book in as random a way as possible, since it’s kind of a paean to randomness.

It opens with incredible speed. A terrifying psychological transformation is compressed into the first few paragraphs — Nashe’s wife leaves him, his daughter is adopted by his sister, he inherits about $200,000 from a father he doesn’t know, he becomes addicted to pointless coast-to-coast driving, and we’re still just a few pages in.

Even our readerly assumption that Nashe’s life was relatively settled before the story begins turns out to be misleading – apparently it’s just as much an accident that he became a fireman in the first place. Is The Music of Chance the only novel ever written that doesn’t confuse correlation with causation, that confronts how much our lives are truly governed by happenstance?

I think of Stephen Jay Gould’s observation that if you ran the tape of evolutionary history a second time, you’d come out somewhere different. Auster here pulls off the trick of providing a completely immersive high-stakes reading experience where nothing seems fated. The Music of Chance delivers the intensity of myth without any of the determinism.

And yet, as usually occurs both in myth and in life, freedom quickly becomes captivity. Flower and Stone, the novel’s overlords of capital, are compared before we meet them to Laurel and Hardy, Mutt and Jeff, Ernie and Bert. They are petty, childish men, full of concealed animosity, who on the turn of a card become Nashe’s masters.

He is set to constructing a twentieth-century wall from the ruins of a fifteenth-century castle, using a child’s wagon to haul the stones – on reflection this feels like an elaborate metaphor for the bleak labor of the contemporary novelist, although this way of looking at it is only occuring to me now after multiple rereadings.

Building the wall is a meaningless task but Nashe finds meaning in it, or puts meaning into it. Like Camus in The Stranger, Auster seems to suggest we should take resposibility for our lives despite their contingency. Finishing this book always leaves me feeling more alive.

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