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on 18 April 2017
This is still my favourite Auster novel. Auster has the rare ability of being able to say something profound in an accessible way.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 February 2014
Newark, New Jersey-born author Paul Auster has written some brilliantly inventive novels in his time, but this 1990 work is, for me, one of his finest. Running to just over 200 pages it might be more accurately described as a novelette, and with Auster's vivid imagination (and easy-to-read prose) imbuing every sentence it is a tale that can easily be devoured in a handful of sittings (indeed I have just re-read it, for the fifth or sixth time, in less than a week). Equally, in typical Auster style, it can either be read as 'simply' a fast-moving adventure story or something much more profound - a man's frustrating struggle to find his inner self, perhaps - and, with its dream-like themes of soul-searching, paranoia and bizarre coincidence (another Auster staple, of course), and its propensity for 'more questions than answers', Auster's nightmarish tale of thirtysomething, Jim Nashe, calls to mind something straight out of Franz Kafka or Kazuo Ishiguro at their most inventive.

As was the case with Benjamin Sachs from Leviathan, Marco Fogg from Moon Palace and David Zimmer from The Book Of Illusions, Auster once again sets up ex-Boston fireman Jim Nashe as a man 'out of time' and in search of his own self as, on finding himself the beneficiary of a family legacy, absolves himself of all responsibility (young daughter, absent wife) and sets off on a year-long road trip, before running into 'budding card-sharp' Jack Pozzi and (jointly) hatching a scheme to plunder winnings (at poker) from a pair of reclusive multi-millionaires. Thereafter, Auster's tale focuses on Nashe and Pozzi's mercurial, but ultimately deeply-felt, friendship, and the nightmarish series of events that sees them ensconced at their 'adversaries'' remote mansion and increasingly questioning their circumstances and own sense of reality. This is Auster at his most inventive and profound and, whilst The Music Of Chance does not have the scale and scope of other works such as Moon Palace or The Book Of Illusions, for me, he has here created a perfectly-formed, self-contained masterpiece.
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on 4 April 2010
Faber and Faber's 2005 publication of some of Paul Auster's novels in collected form has made it more convenient to embark on Auster binges, eating up two or three of his novels in succession. It also provides a cunning method of sneaking more books into the holiday luggage. ('Holdall heavy? Can't think why, sweetie, I've only got one book in there.' ).

Volume two of Collected Novels consists of 1990's The Music of Chance, 1992's Leviathan, and 1994's Mr Vertigo. The first novel in this 600+ page volume is The Music of Chance. Like many Auster novels (for example the three novellas comprising the New York trilogy; The Brooklyn Follies; Invisible), it hinges on the way chance meetings or events can transform lives. In this case, the life is that of Jim Nashe, a Boston fireman in his early thirties, whose world is thrown into tumult. First, his estranged father, who he hasn't seen for thirty years, dies. Then Jim';s wife Therese walks out on Jim and their two year-old daughter Juliet. Jim comes to the only child-care solution he can think of on his limited fireman's wage, which is to leave Juliet with his sister Donna in Minnesota. Too late, he finds out this could have been avoided; six months after his father died, Jim is tracked down by his father's lawyer who informs him that Jim;s deceased father left both Jim and Donna a substantial inheritance. But Juliet is settled and happy in her new home. Besides, Jim has been seized by a wanderlust he has never previously known. He is driven to gobbling up thousands of miles in his new car, travelling across his country.

We learn all this in the first couple of pages. We also learn, on page 1, that Jim happens by chance to meet a garishly dressed kid in his early twenties by the name of Jack Pozzi. Pozzi plays poker for a living, or so he says. Jim is struck by an audacious idea that would be of mutual benefit to them both. But is Pozzi all strutting braggadacio or can he deliver what he promises?

And so the adventure develops. As usual with Auster, bizarre events occur, but unlike many less methodical writers, Auster meticulously rationalises them. Thus, each time Jim makes an ostensibly implausible decision, we are party to the reasoning behind it, and Auster's intelligence and clever wheedling convinces us that each character's behaviour is actually rational given their state of mind.

This lifts the story out of the realm of the ordinary, as does the uncertainty evoked throughout: does Jim develop paranoia and delusions? Or is he simply wisely sceptical? Do he and Pozzi misinterpret the determination of a couple of eccentrics for something more sinister? Do they misread the stoical employee as having malignant intent?

When Jim develops violent, even murderous urges towards an innocent, the way Auster has painted the gradual deterioration of his mindset, stroke by painstaking stroke, makes the horrific urges genuinely credible and therefore truly shocking.

The ending is somewhat unsatisfying because of the lack of resolution of the reader's questions, but then Auster is too smart to offer up easy answers on a plate. The drama is ongoing in our minds. It's vintage Auster - another stylish offering from a master of elegance, understated brilliance and suspense.
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on 21 November 2008
I'm having a sudden urge to raid Paul Auster's works, following up `Mr. Vertigo` with `The Music of Chance`, a book I had long-neglected but somehow - like an Auster character, perhaps - convinced myself I had already read. This is probably because of the low-key but cultish film adaptation starring James Spader and M. Emmet Walsh that burned a peculiar and indelible mark on my brain. Once I had picked up `The Music of Chance', though, it was very difficult to put down, a quality common to the author's novels. There's something in the rhythm of Auster's writing, in his unknotty way of describing incremental and inexorable changes in his characters' fortunes, that makes his works compelling and - in this case - quite distressing. `The Music of Chance' has the curious quality of being simultaneously about inevitability - or fate - and having the atmosphere of a nightmare. Very little about Auster's novels seems real - there is the symbolic nature of a fable about `The Music of Chance' - but as a reader we can still live the experience as one might live through a very bad dream.

`The Music of Chance' has gained, for me at least, a contemporary relevance in that it deals with characters finally enslaved by their own greed. I use `greed' for lack of a better word since in fact Auster's protagonists are not simply driven by avarice but see in money their only chance of freedom, and not without reason of course. It is the fact - or at least the prevailing belief - that money buys freedom which dooms friends Nashe and Pozzi, the odd couple who meet in a chance encounter. Nashe, a somewhat lonely soul, has inherited money from the death of his father and, having been left by his wife, sells virtually all his possessions to embark on a prolonged and randomly-plotted road trip. While hitting the road has provided the classic American metaphor for freedom and its parameters from 'Easy Rider' to, er ,'On The Road' - Nashe's jounrey is not motivated by ideals but by a proverbial roll of the dice. On parting with his belongings he feels:

"a certain pain involved in these transactions, but Nashe almost began to welcome the pain, to feel ennobled by it ... He felt like a man who had finally found the courage to put a bullet in his head - but in this case the bullet was not death, it was life ...".

And later,

"Little by little, he had fallen in love with his new life of freedom and irresponsibility ... after three or four months, he had only to enter the car to feel 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".

Like in `Mr Vertigo', weightlessness becomes a metaphor for freedom - of existential release - but in both novels it is a freedom bought with finite resources, and this is where the dream starts to go sour:

"Slowly but surely, the adventure was turning into a paradox. The money was responsible for his freedom, but each time he used it to buy another portion of that freedom, he was denying himself an equal portion of it as well. The money kept him going, but it was also an engine of loss ... "

Nashe's optimism is renewed afresh on the road when he picks up Pozzi, an ambitious young poker player and hustler, whom Nashe offers to back financially in a high-stakes poker game. The game is hosted by a couple of eccentric millionaires - the reclusive Flower and Stone - who won their fortune by luck, of course, in the lottery. It comes as no surprise that Pozzi loses the game in a spiral of bad luck and that the duo becomes hopelessly indebted to the millionaires. In what could be viewed as an allegory for the enslavement of, say, a mortgage, Pozzi and Nashe are forced to repay their debt by working for Flower and Stone in constructing an enormous wall for them out of the stones of a ruined castle. A folly which is at once both bricks and mortar and the embodiment of towering futility - in building the wall Pozzi and Nashe are ultimately imprisoning themselves; akin to digging their own grave.

`The Music of Chance' is a frightening book, with an impending mood of catastrophe - a sense that the cards have already been dealt, that fate is out of the characters' hands: except those of Flower and Stone of course. There is a particularly chilling chapter where Pozzi and Nashe are taken for a pre-Poker game tour of the millionaires' house, where they are shown Stone's elaborate folly: `The City of the World' - a scale-model miniature society with menacing Utopian-totalitarian undertones. While we hope Pozzi and Nashe will win the poker game it is clear one man's luck - his good fortune - will ultimately result in another man's oppression. A powerful fable, 'The Music of Chance' is a timely reminder of money's terrible hold over us, as a giver and denier of freedom - and of fortune's inexorable partiality.
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on 8 July 2015
An electrifying tale and an ode to personal freedom. Written in a sparse prose, with a Raymond Chandler style boys like; The Music Of Chance weaves a tale about how we are never as free (or carefree), as we like to think we are. Probably not a book to read if you are alone and of advancing years.
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on 26 September 2001
A thought provoking tale. Asks us whether a man can be truly free, and indeed, whether such freedom necessarily leads to happiness. Nashe comes into an inheritance, setting off on an aimless driving marathon around the USA. He only feels free when driving, but must keep going to avoid his responsibilities and the real world catching up with him. Eventually, with his money running out, a chance encounter with a young gambler leads to Nashe losing his precious liberty in bizarre fashion. I strongly recommend this book, whether read just as a strange story, or as an examination of Man's existential plight.
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on 16 March 2004
Unlike Leviathan which took me by the scruff of my neck from page one, it took me about 30 pages to get off the blocks with Music of Chance.
But then, as with all of Auster's books, that was it - bang - had to stay up half the night to finish it. I was as captive as protagonist Jim Nashe building his monolithic wall.
Auster's clearly a lot smarter than me because I'm not sure I really 'get' existentialism but his themes are always accessible, and the freedom vs. captivity debate is as subtly shaded as it is in real life.
The central characters, Nashe and Pozzi, are wonderfully well drawn. The characters of Flower and Stone, as well as that of their emissary Murks, are crafted in such a way that they are at once ordinary people and duplicitous, mythic demons.

That's the remarkable (and agonising) thing about Auster, he gives you space to paint your own story alongside his. He creates questions in the mind of his protagonists which then become your questions. You race along desperate to find the answers to those questions. But they never really come.
So you're left there at the end, if you're not that smart like me, saying "cop out ending". But just maybe Auster's saying, well, real life doesn't answer your questions either.
And maybe you don't really want them answered because long after you've put the book down, it still won't go away.
At the character level, Nashe and Pozzi stick to you like glue and it's hard to let them go. At the plot level, you're still reaching your own conclusions about what people's real motives or actions were. At the thematic level you continue asking questions about your own life. You wonder whether this is a tale of the ordinary or the supernatural.
Anyway, even if Auster held up his hands and said, "yep, I was out of ideas, it's a cop out ending", it's still a five star book because it's all about the journey. A journey so engaging and beautifully crafted that, despite the darkness that creeps alongside you, you don't want it to end.
And anyone who can paint a portrait of a vast meadow and make it feel more claustrophobic than the smallest, dankest prison cell has my vote.
I've said it before, the man's a genius.
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on 5 July 2015
This is, for me, the best novel ever written. Not the cheeriest, by any means, or rewarding in the facile sort of way so many people seem to demand of literature today. But it is an extraordinarily rewarding read in every way that counts.

It is one of those books that start deceptively mellow, then make you shout 'WTF?!' several times throughout, and then shout the loudest at the end. And the ending is perfect: you absolutely don't see it coming but then, when you think back (which I did, for a long time after finishing it) you realize that it was the only way it could have ended, it had been coming from the very start, in an frightful, inexorable, slow march. I actually didn't find anything absurd in it. Horrific, yes; but absurd, not so much.

This is a beautifully constructed novel but, make no mistake, a very tough read. It's an unlikely story if anyone is foolish enough to take it ad-litteram, but it is a story anyone could have lived through, if we consider its symbolism and extrapolate a little. 'The Music of Chance' has been called a parable and it sure is one; and in it, Paul Auster has done the most wonderful thing a writer can do for us: force us to think, and allow every one of us to look at it in wonder and interpret his work in whatever way we decide. I am sure we will all construct our own idiosyncratic, but perfectly valid meanings, from the novel's intricate building bricks (or, more appropriately in this case, stones).

And that is precisely what the greatest works of art all do, isn't it?
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on 19 January 1998
There is something about The Music of Chance that makes the reader fall in love with Paul Auster.It could be the clarity of his prose and his real precision with language. It might be that he takes an idea, two men being forced to build a wall because they lost a poker game, and elevates it from the absurd to the brilliant. The novel speaks about chance - brief encounters with people and ideas. It is a beautiful novel.
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I'm an immense fan of Paul Auster's writing. He is disquieting, edgy, and probes the deeper recesses of the reader's mind. My first book of his was The New York Trilogy: "City of Glass", "Ghosts" and "Locked Room", which was enough to "set the hook." Others followed, including Moon Palace and Timbuktu. In ways almost certainly unintended, there is this "Homeland Security" aspect to his writing. There is always this amorphous, undefined threat out there; that can wreck one's life, if you are not alert enough, and `don't report unattended baggage'... Auster has a strong following in France, probably more so than in the USA. He has been promoted by the publisher "Actes Sud," and his works have resonated in Marsailles. All too often, his themes involve fleeting thoughts, if not recurring dreams or nightmares of the reader... and a willingness to pursue them in creative and imaginative ways.

Jim Nashe is the main protagonist in this work. He is a 30's something fireman in Boston, recently estranged from his wife, and still responsible for his two-year old daughter. His father deserted his mother and him (a common theme in Auster's novels), but "redeems" himself by dying, and leaving him a couple hundred grand. Nashe, like many of our own fantasies, decides to take to the road, a la On the Road (Penguin Modern Classics), driving simply for the sake of driving. His money is dwindling when chance, one of so many in this novel, brings the young card player and hustler, Jack Pozzi into his life. After a stint in the Plaza Hotel in NYC, they decide to risk Nashe's remaining fortune in a classic "double down" poker game with some eccentric... truly eccentric millionaires who made their fortune, sure enough, through blind chance also: purchasing the right lottery ticket.

Acquiescence and even adaptation to the twists and turns that fate throws at you are also prevailing themes with Auster, and this novel. At one point, a given situation is viewed as utterly absurd; but within a few paragraphs, it becomes the "new normal." Of contemporary American writers, only Thomas Pynchon has a similar ability to make the implausible and unbelievable turn into reality, and have you doubting yourself if you remain skeptical. And thus, the new reality becomes Nasbe and Pozzi working in a Pennsylvania field, building a wall out of stones that had once been part of an Irish castle.

Auster's allusions and references reflect his erudition. On one page he is quoting from William Blake's poem "Jerusalem." Two pages later, it is the subject quote from Faulkner's The Sound And The Fury (Vintage Classics) Unlikely that Auster is bluffing in such matters; he does have the cards. Amazon however makes the Reagan adage: "Trust but verify" easy. The search function confirms that the subject quote is on page 177. Like his other works, 5-stars, for sure.
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