The Music of Chance Review
As this is a blog about vintage French bikes, I thought I’d expand on my appreciation for French culture by reviewing a book I just read in French: Paul Auster’s: The Music of Chance.
I remember first seeing cover of the movie at my local Blockbuster back in 1993, it had a stylish picture of James Spader in a poker game, smoking a cigarette at the table. I loved the film, but it has taken me nearly 30 years to finally read the book.
“He concluded nothing is real except chance.”
This is a line in the opening paragraph of Auster’s 1985 book, New York Trilogy, which has resounding familiarity to the theme of this later 1990 work, The Music of Chance. The role of Chance in every day life is a subject much explored by Auster and underscores and manipulates the storytelling in both novels.
Book and Film
It’s not an easy book to describe. A quick attempt to summarise it as “two guys building a wall to pay off a gambling debt” won’t offer any insight into a story that has many layers and leaves you searching for its meaning. Yet, as a cinematic experience, some people just see the story as exactly that, two drifters who are constructing a wall. I remember having breakfast at a Brussels hotel in 1998 and overhearing a middle aged couple talking about the movie that had been on TV the night before. “That film with the wall, what was all that about?” sneered the lady. Her partner just shook his head dismissively. I left my table rather disgusted that they saw it in such a trivial way.
The Search for Meaning
The film is excellent but I found the book a much deeper experience, a profound and disturbing morality tale in an uncaring world. The characters are all somehow detached from something, as if blown around by forces beyond their control. They seem to be searching for purpose in a meaningless universe: Jack in his intention to be a great card player; Nashe in his meanderings across the country; Flower and Stone in their attempts to construct and collect objects for the sake of posterity and admiration. Even Murks seems disjointed and troubled, unliked and resented by Nashe and Jack, hiding a sinister brutality behind a facade of affability when carrying out his duties. I’ve always seen Murks as representative of those who dutifully do the work of cruel authority and oppressors.
It is Nashe, however, who takes centre stage in this story of these six people with interweaving fates. He is a man without any real sense of purpose, who has run away from responsibility and normal life to “just drive”, a life of being on the road. I find Nashe a character who is as remote in a way as Camus’ Mersault. He is compelled to erase all sense of himself as a worthy human being, and he is prepared to lose everything by some force within him that blinds him to its consequences:
“You should think carefully, my friend”, warns Flower when he offers his car as credit to play another game, “this hasn’t been your lucky night”.
He brazenly steals the two figures of Flower and Stone in the City of World the latter is constructing, and ignores the advice of Jack who seems more aware of the dangers of dealing with these men. Nashe, it seems, passively accepts his loss of freedom to pay off the debt to the millionaires, resigned as he is to whatever fate decides, even if is dealt by a deal of a card. He seems to treat the debt as absurd as everything else in his experience, willing to abandon the very freedom he was trying to secure.
Nashe’s life before meeting Jack is unremarkable and ordinary, there is no great event or tragedy that triggers his desire to abandon his job, his life and all his responsibilities. This is what makes him so realistic to me, so relatable, as people may wander and can be lost in the world without having a seminal experience to cause it. The fact that he never knew his father could be part of his desire to run away from his life, and is surely the reason why his inheritance money which he is fritting away has no value or meaning to him. Indeed, money to Nashe has no other value than to keep him on the road, to sustain his solitariness. Investments or property have no place in his mind, and he grimly accepts that one day he will have no money left.
Nashe is divorced and his parental role is reduced to sporadic visits to see his daughter, but his solitude on the road is not the result of a single act or trauma in his recent or distant past. Indeed, he is unable to clearly explain why he has chosen this life. He sees life as absurd and his acceptance of this leads to violence and death, which is analogous to Camus’ absurdist protagonist, Mersault.
It was Jack, however, whom I was most drawn to when I first watched the film and even now when I read the book. I was 23 when I saw it for the first time, and Spader looked my age and played the part of a card playing drifter really well. I could relate to the charismatic, likeable rogue who wanted to use his wits and skills to beat the odds and make his fortune. Realizing his dream would also be a way of sticking it to the man. However, from the moment Pozzi enters into Nashe’s world, when he falls into the car dazed and injured, one senses a cloud of doom surrounding his reckless youth; one intuitively knows that his dreams will never be realised.
Left for Dead
I hated what they did to Jack. Beaten and left for dead in the cold early morning, discarded in the field for Nashe to find at dawn. Auster depicts Jack’s death with shocking brutality, and Nashe’s helplessness is one of the defining parts of the story. He can do nothing but be witness to the charade of Murks, who pretends he knows nothing of Pozzi’s broken body. There is no confrontation, no immediate revenge as the days pass and Nashe is left to once more to dutifully continue his work under the supervision of Jack’s murderer.
Chance is the one constant, the one power at work throughout the whole story and the force that determines all outcomes. In a godless universe, chance is the central pivot to what happens to an individual, as much as in life as in the microcosm of a poker game. The gamblers in the story are obeisant to it as if it is a deity that must be pandered to, a power which can grant favour to those who take risks and make the right choices. Flower and Stone believe that picking prime numbers for the lottery was:
“The magical combination. The keys to the doors of heaven”.
Harmony and Numbers
The same belief makes Pozzi believe that Nashe broke the harmony when he left the poker table, “We had everything in harmony. We’d come to the point where everything was music to us, and then you have to go upstairs and smash all the instruments. You tampered with the universe, my friend, and once a man does that, he has to pay a price.” It is the same sense of the mystic power in numbers which makes Flower and Stone believe a higher power was behind their lottery win.
The Music of Chance is partly a road story too. The road sits deep in the American psyche, where the displaced can find refuge and freedom but are also more exposed to vulnerability and misfortune. So many of these tales are the subject of songs, movies and stories in American culture, the road has a powerful symbolic role in the American psyche. The aimless wandering of Nashe and the youthful rebelliousness of Jack in the first three chapters stand in stark contrast to the trapped life and work conditions they find themselves in after chancing their luck and losing their freedom to the rules and power capitalists hold. Flower and Stone represent the unyielding face of capitalism in our society, whom Jack calls:
“The old boys with their five dollar cigars. True blue American assholes”.
The Role of Money
The possession of money in The Music of Chance neither adds nor reflects any greater moral value to those who have it. Flower and Stone are rich but are ruthless and unsympathetic to those around them. Stone’s City of the World reflects his view of how society should be run; a hard, totalitarian place of work and conformity to the capitalist mantra where good triumphs over evil. The two millionaires are cold and cruel implementors of the creed that money begets money, wealth produces a better life, the enrichment and empowerment of the individual, which they deem is for the good of society. From this power comes order and control, expressed as a moral authority in the City of the World.
Yet, being rich actually has no moral value and what really matters is the pursuit of money for the sake of attaining ever more of it: “as soon as we were rich we became very rich”, boasts Flower, “And once we were very rich, we became fabulously rich”. This is ultimately what will lead to the exploitation and deception of Nashe and Pozzi. Nashe makes the mistake of trusting them as champions of the American ethos, thereby assured that the debt contract will be honoured by both sides, but he is wrong in equating morals with money. Flower and Stone abuse their position as creditors and change the terms of the contract purely for their own gains.
Nashe and Mersault
Can we draw comparisons between Nashe and Mersault? In Camus’ story, Mersault kills a man without any sense of right or wrong, there is no greater sense than it was just a happening, as if nothing in his existence has any more meaning than the moment he finds himself in. Nashe too, seems to have no sense of consequences for his actions when he gambles everything and accepts, similarly to Mersault, that there is no meaning in an irrational universe. This absurdist view of life is what makes him stay, when Jack pleads with him to leave.
Finally the question of the wall that is built by Nashe and Jack, a very powerful image and symbol within the story. Does it represent the barrier between the two sets of men, the penniless workers and the luxury life of millionaires, the big house and the trailer in the field? Is a wall just a symbol of what denies us something, the person we wish to be, the restrictions that are placed on us and which we place on others? Is the wall just a feature of Stone’s City of the World, infinitely replicated, in which Nashe serves the needs of his masters, the gods that in this story, Flower and Stone?
“The absurd is the conflict between the very human desire to seek a answer to the question of ultimate meaning in life and a universe that frustrates all efforts to fulfill such a desire, remaining cold and indifferent to the many individuals that exist within it.” 1
You can watch the movie online here: