The Music of Chance by Paul Auster

The Music of Chance
Paul Auster, 1990, 224p.1
David Mitchell's Ghostwritten, which I recently reviewed2, referenced The Music of Chance repeatedly in the segment set in London. The protagonist of that section was in a band called "The Music of Chance", after "a novel by that New York bloke". This century being what it is, I Googled the novel, and within minutes it was on hold for me at the library down the street. Years of serious Wikipedia addition compel me to at least try to follow these links, but link networks get fatter as you traverse them, and time and attention become rarefied and dusty. However, following this link led me towards a rewarding reading experience of four Auster works in fairly short order3.

The novel starts with Jim Nashe driving. Driving and driving. His wife has recently run off, and he has sent his young daughter to be raised by his sister. His estranged father has died, and left him with a modest fortune. After visiting his daughter, he finds himself compelled to drive. He leaves his job as a fireman, and simply starts driving. He drives for over a year, stopping along the way, periodically visiting his daughter and a woman he becomes attached to. The compulsion to drive eventually consumes his inheritance and he finds himself detached from everything but his daughter and sister. With his finances coming to an end, but his restless lust for driving unsatisfied, he happens upon Jack Pozzi, a young man who has obviously just been severely beaten.

Pozzi is a semi-professional gambler with a "sure thing" lined up, but no financing. Nashe goes all in with his remaining cash, in the desperate hope of feeding his need to drive. The story comes to a climax during the "sure thing", a poker game with two lottery millionaires, but the climax is soon deflated as the story takes a sharp turn. Pozzi and Nashe lose more than everything to the millionaires, and become indentured servants, building the millionaires' folly — a wailing wall in a meadow made from imported stones from a long destroyed Irish castle.

While Pozzi balks at the indignity, Nashe struggles with the task but sees it almost as an opportunity. With few connections in his life, and no vision for the future, the isolation and purpose of the folly appear to shift his inertia. But their situation is ambiguous and paranoia reasonably blooms. Are they employees, or slaves? Where they cheated? Will they ever be able to leave?

In each section of the story, Auster allows tension to build, but then whips us down different paths before allowing the tension to resolve, and at a certain point in the story, I found myself getting physically anxious. Repeatedly the author appears to be accelerating towards a climax, but leaves the reader hanging. In the end there is no resolution but rather an eruption.

Late in the story, Nashe is alone in the small trailer set up beside the folly, and he is given a small electric keyboard. He has some of his old sheet music salvaged from the trunk of his car, and starts playing. He discovers that pieces written for the harpsichord sound best on the keyboard, as it has poor volume control. He focuses in on a famous piece by French composer Couperin called "Les Barricades Mystérieuses". He seems to recall that no one was certain what barricades the title refers to. To him there is something compelling about the way the piece builds momentum then slackens but refuses to resolve its internal tensions. Like Mitchell in Cloud Atlas, Auster uses an embedded musical work to wink at rather than explicate the structure of the work, though in Auster's case it is a reference rather than a product of the fiction itself.

I wasn't familiar with Couperin, only enough to know that he was non-fictional. Upon hitting the reference and understanding the importance to the work, I put down the novel and pulled up the Wikipedia page for Couperin, and was listening to a YouTube recording of "Les Barricades Mystérieuses" on a harpsichord within a minute or so4. This sort of referential gratification made me reflective: it would have been entirely impossible when this book was written just over 20 years ago. I could have perhaps found a book or a recording within a couple of days at the library, but only perhaps. Google, Wikipedia and YouTube would seem to render all text into hypertext — while I couldn't click the reference in this hardcover, I was nevertheless satisfied nearly as quickly with text, images and audio.

Does this immediate satisfaction deflate some of the mystery of the work? Does it make a deeper understanding of the work more accessible to the musically obtuse5? Or does it distract from the primary work by embedding it in nest of links?

To be fair, I was led to this compelling novel by following links, so perhaps it is only appropriate than links should lead me back out again.

If you crave a traditional plot or firm resolutions, then this book isn't a good match; it is a novel but not precisely a story. However, the skillful structure and propulsion of the narrative made this effective and affecting. The author's almost reckless manipulation of tension and his persistently eerie tone made this hard to put down.


  1. Full disclosure: My library copy had the first edition cover, not pictured. The first edition cover is possibly the ugliest book cover I have ever seen, and I can't bring myself to post it or even link to it here.
  2. My recent review of Ghostwritten by David Mitchell.
  3. I followed up this novel by reading Auster's New York Trilogy, which in an ideal world I would review soon.
  4. A version for harpsichord and discussion of the name "Les Barricades Mystérieuses".
  5. My neighbour owns a harpsichord, and was intimately familiar with the piece; he would have resolved the reference without digital means. The connecting power doesn't give me something universally impossible, but rather makes something universally possible.


Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

David Mitchell, 1999, 436p.
David Mitchell's debut novel, composed of nine loosely interconnected stories that stretch across Asia and then towards the west. I read Mitchell's Cloud Atlas earlier this year, which featured a set of six interconnected stories. Where Cloud Atlas's stories were nested, and moved forward and then backwards in time, the stories in Ghostwritten take place in roughly the same time and universe. As in the later work, these stories are connected not just by character and coincidence, but also by themes and ideas. Ghosts appear in all the stories, but in various forms - from literal haunting ghosts to ghostwriters to sleeper agents to... well, no spoilers.

It is hard to talk about this novel without using the phrase "astounding debut." This is a first work by a writer who was just 30 at the time this was published, but his confidence and ambition is stunning. He begins moving through Japan to Hong Kong and then into mainland China, establishing a startling sense of place and building (mostly) compelling primary characters for each segment in relatively short stories (each of the first seven stories are around 30 pages). Ignoring the quality of the writing for a moment, you have to pause and admire the gumption of a debut novelist who starts off with a brainwashed cult terrorist on the run in coastal Japan, seething with disgust for the local masses of unconverted. Anger, fear and rank delusion right from page one, and then we are off across the landscape of the world.

With each section, there is a shift in perspective and sometimes in style and tone, though much less so than in Cloud Atlas, where each section is written in a different dialect and genre. The bulk of the stories could work as interesting standalone short stories, though some of the later stories build a little on earlier stories. The second story was a particular favourite of mine: a stalled young Japanese man in Tokyo has ensconced himself in a record store, surrounded by the jazz he loves, but conscious that this isn't where his life is likely to lead. A very sweet and simple love story sets him back off on a journey again, but I was invested both in the journey and in his contemplative stasis. The fourth story ambitiously attempts a history of modern China from the perspective of a woman running a lone tea shack on the side of Holy Mountain1, from her despoiling as a girl by a warlord's son in the late feudal era, through the cultural revolution to the modern day.

After five excellent and distinct segments, it was almost a relief to find that Mitchell hadn't sold his soul for unearthly powers. The sixth segment is an underwhelming art caper in Saint Petersburg, Russia which I dragged myself through with some effort. This section lacked the sense of place that many of the others had, and the primary characters largely bored me. The seventh segment moves to London, and while it isn't the strongest in the novel, I perked right back up. Perhaps Mitchell intentionally let his tightness slip here, before the novel starts accelerating towards its gasping conclusion? He has the skill and the balls to manipulate the reader this way, but I somewhat doubt it. I could imagine him jerking the reader around a bit with a referential but implausible story2, but I can't imagine him intentionally letting the mood and landscape belly flop.

The connections between stories read more like Easter Eggs than critical to the story; companies and people and stories that pop up and satisfy our need for connection, but don't necessarily inform the plot. And there is something of a major plot arc here, I think, though it is somewhat hard to elaborate. Since the traditional novel forms are eschewed, the reader needs to work harder to grasp at the whole. Because the plot (if there is one) is tangled with the reoccurring themes and ideas, the reader is pushed into thinking more about ideas than activities. Or rather, that was my approach - I think that the structure encourages a deeper reading, but doesn't insist on it. You could stroll through this as a collection of crisp short stories or as character studies.

Overall, I didn't like this as much as I liked Cloud Atlas, but it did feel less ostentatious. In between these two books, he wrote number9dream with some similar choices and themes, which certainly gains a spot on my "to be read" list.


  1. Apparently Mount Emei, the highest of the Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism in China.
  2. I raise this mostly because he does do something like this in Cloud Atlas, and it worked for me. However, in that case each nested story casts its outer story as potentially fiction and definitely as text or other media, and some of the inner stories critique the outer ones. There isn't that sort of internal interaction with text here, though. Without one section explicitly commenting on another section, which doesn't happen here, I am not sure it makes sense.


White Rapids by Pascal Blanchet

White Rapids
Pascal Blanchet, 2007, 156p.
White Rapids is a short, bold graphic work by young Quebec illustrator Pascal Blanchet, translated from French. Blanchet's interests are obvious from the outset: Architecture and mid-20th century graphic design. His 1950s palette is subtle, warm and consistent throughout, but styles mix and blend - some Googie swash here, Deco there, Streamline Moderne - though all with bold flat and architectural shapes.

Blanchet wants to tell the story of the rise and fall of a company town in remote Quebec. A common story in Canada, this one is unusual in that it is not a mining community, but rather a community built around a hydroelectric project. Founded in the late 1920s (see excerpt for lovely 20s Deco), peaking after the war, the town is then automated into obsolescence in the 1970s. He does tell this story, but only the lightest wisp of it - the bare essentials. There are no characters1, only scenery, which is sometimes peppered with figures. But the scenery! Blanchet is a master with the architectural details, with perfectly coloured bevel and shadow. His set pieces are brooding, wistful and exciting, with a dynamic perspective.

There is a story here to be told in just the architecture. The work starts with the dramatic deco lines and early 20th century offsets of the Aldred building in Montreal2, but tries to manufacture a matching suspense and drama in the narrative that doesn't make any sense to me. Then we have the dam at the centre of the story, with a sense of tension and release that made me need to use the washroom. And then the buildings in the town, pulsing and murmuring away - then later empty but not consumed, warm and with a sense of dust. All perfectly vibrant and powerful, despite the muted palatte.

Excerpt from White Rapids
Just as the drama at the beginning of the story rings false, the drama at the end is thin and twee. In the middle, there is some sort of sing-a-long tour of the town and its surroundings which I think is intended to stitch together various views, but which instead distracted me from the views.

Part of the problem here is that this is a graphic novel but not "comic" style - there are no panel divisions, and no convention of word balloons to lean on to structure the text. Full page and full spread artwork without divides and borders is perfect for his style, but he hasn't figured out how to integrate text. My inclination is that he simply shouldn't have - it consistently distracted from the work. Or perhaps I want him to delete all of the text to rid this work of its most painful aspect, the monumentally bad use of font. Each page has a distracting new font wedged into the artwork. Some are merely hard to read, others are ugly and hard to read. The undisciplined use of type and text here is mysterious, considering how disciplined his line and colouring is.

It is possible to have an extremely pleasurable reading if you gloss over parts of this work. The reader knows what the plot arc is from the back cover, so ignore the text (and the humans) and just look at the set pieces as they move by. In that reading, the post-war years with their supposed optimism and domesticity are one of the ephemeral moments of the century, quickly washed away by late century pragmatism.


  1. Okay, there is one realized character: a "legendary fish" named "The General", a trope so stale that The Simpsons mocked it a full 20 years ago. I'll be generous and note that General Sherman was a catfish, and The General was a sturgeon.
  2. The Aldred Building still stands, and there are lots of great photos online. The excerpt is an establishing view of this building from early in the piece.
Kiirstin also reviewed this book at A Book a Week, and we had a short discussion about it which is posted after her review.