The Music of Chance is a near-perfect novel

James Spader, M. Emmet Walsh and Mandy Patinkin in the 1993 movie Music of Chance

James Spader, M. Emmet Walsh and Mandy Patinkin in Music of Chance (1993).

I first read The Music of Chance years ago, I think before I saw the 1993 movie but I can’t be sure. Anyway, I fell in love with it from the opening line: “For one whole year he did nothing but drive, traveling back and forth across America as he waited for the money to run out.”

The first chapter continues from there and is a thing of beautiful existential exposition, interspersed with dialogue that reads like second-rate Raymond Chandler – something I didn’t pick up on the first time. (One reviewer on GoodReads implied that Auster lifted whole swaths of the dialogue from old crime novels, which adds a nice recontextualizing twist to the whole thing.) Anyway, the dialogue gets better, but it isn’t really the point.

The point is the dilemma that faces Jim Nashe, the driver who stops to pick up a card player named Jack Pozzi, an event that sets in motion a series of events that, in hindsight, seem inevitable but which, during the book’s hurtling forward momentum, are unpredictable. The dilemma being: do we consign ourselves to our fates or kick against them?

This is a nearly perfect novel that I would include with my all-time faves, a list that includes E.L. Doctorow‘s Billy Bathgate and Walter Tevis‘s The Queen’s Gambit. The Music of Chance was a joy to re-read, and even though I saw (or thought I saw) a few flaws this time, they weren’t enough to inhibit my enjoyment of the book.

As an aside: for some reason The Music of Chance, which is Auster’s third novel and was published in 1990 when he was 43, didn’t send me on a Paul Auster-reading spree when I first read it. In fact I haven’t read anything else by the author (except a graphic novel adaptation of his novel City of Glass). For me, it’s as if The Music of Chance is a perfect distillation of his worldview, and requires no further comment.

As another aside: the 1993 movie version stars James Spader, Mandy Patinkin, M. Emmet Walsh and Samantha Mathis. If memory serves, it’s a pretty good flick; unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to have been issued on DVD. (Get on it, Criterion!) However, it’s still out there on VHS.




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