Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Paul Auster: The Music of Chance

I just read Paul Auster's excellent Music of Chance (1990). The blurb of this book goes as follows: "Nashe has decided to pursue a 'life of freedom', when he meets Pozzi, an itinerant gambler. Together they go in for an extraordinary game of poker with Flower and Stone, two eccentric recluses living on a vast estate in Pennsylvania. It is a gamble that Nashe and Pozzi will regret for the rest of their lives. The Music of Chance is strange haunting parable by a writer of extraordinary imagination and power".

(Warning: contains some spoilers.)

Jim Nashe is a drifter who quits his job as fireman after receiving a surprise inheritance from his estranged father, sells his property and starts driving around USA aimlessly in his Saab. On the road he chances upon Jack Pozzi, a young master gambler in his early twenties, who has been battered badly by a bunch of businessmen after their poker game was robbed by a gang of masked robbers; the businessmen thinking it was Pozzi who had given a tip of the game to the robbers.

Nashe saves Pozzi, who tells Nashe he's planning a poker game with two millionaires, Flower and Stone, Pozzi mockingly calling them "Laurel and Hardy". Pozzi thinks winning these two dumb millionaires in a game of poker will be a piece of cake, and Nashe, after having become convinced of Pozzi's poker skills, agrees to finance the game with his inheritance money, if he and Pozzi split the pot together.

It turns out Flower and Stone have won themselves 27 million dollars in lottery and bought themselves a large mansion with their award money, where they can dedicate themselves to their peculiar hobbies: the tubby Flower collecting random things that had belonged to famous historical characters, the skinny Stone building a laborious model town, far more sinister than it looks at a first glance.

The game starts at Flower and Stone's mansion, but it turns out Pozzi has somehow underestimated his opponents' skills... what ensues is that Nashe and Pozzi end up being virtually prisoners of Flower and Stone, having to build up a mysterious wall on the millionaires' land to compensate for their gambling debts.

This is a multi-layered book which plot can be compared to the "Theatre of Absurd" and its playwrights like Samuel Beckett, especially his classic Waiting For Godot: in fact, Jack Pozzi's name resembles a character called Pozzo there; Laurel and Hardy-like Stone and Flower have also been compared to Beckett's directionless tramps Vladimir and Estragon in the same play. Jim Nashe and Jack Pozzi are also lonely existential characters who have been condemned to endless drifting without a goal. Chance, as the very name of the book tells, is a very crucial factor here: Nashe, Pozzi, Flower and Stone are all maintained either by inheritance, lottery win or gambling.

What is also typical here for Paul Auster's books, is the elliptical narrative style ("ellipsis, also ellipse: the omission from a sentence of words needed to complete construction or sense"): the reader is never fully explained everything in the plot, these gaps adding to an overall sense of mystery. For example, we can only guess the full meaning of the sinister model town built by Stone; towards the end of book the millionaires Stone and Flower become absent characters (such as Beckett's Godot?) who nevertheless keep pulling on the strings as invisible. Why do Stone and Flower want to build on their property a wall, made up of the bricks of a castle imported from Ireland? And what is Pozzi's final fate, after all?

All in all, as Auster's New York Trilogy (which verged on the edge of metafiction), a wonderful book; quite simple on surface but consisting of very complex themes that keep the reader wondering for a long time after having finished the book.