Existentialism Meets Postmodernism in Paul Auster's The Music of Chance

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Author: Warren Oberman
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,915 words

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[(essay date winter 2004) In the following essay, Oberman evaluates the existential dilemma of Auster's protagonist in The Music of Chance against the cultural and economic backdrop of late-capitalism.]

I admire the will to welcome everything--the stupid violence of chance.--Jean-Paul Sartre, "Existentialism" in Essays in Existentialism

The absurd mind has less luck.--Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

Nothing was real except chance.--Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy

In 1987, with The Invention of Solitude, In the Country of Last Things, and The New York Trilogy behind him and Moon Palace almost completed, Paul Auster admitted to Joseph Mallia that "Whenever I complete a book, I'm filled with a feeling of immense disgust and disappointment. It's almost a physical collapse. I'm so disappointed by my feeble efforts that I can't believe I've actually spent so much time and accomplished so little" (Mallia 285). This comment must come as quite a shock not only to Auster's dedicated readers but also to the dozen or so critics who have made The New York Trilogy almost the exclusive focus of Auster criticism. Three years later, upon completing The Music of Chance (1990), his sixth novel and his twelfth published work (counting poetry and nonfiction prose), Auster for the first time experienced something quite different, which he recounts to interviewers Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory:

I wrote the last sentence at about twelve or twelve-thirty in the afternoon, and I remember standing up from the table and saying to myself: "You've done it, old man. For once in your life, you've written something halfway decent." I felt good, really very good--which is something that almost never happens to me when I think about my work.(306)

Despite Auster's self-assessment and the novel's nomination for the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award, in the past decade only one essay in English focuses on The Music of Chance.1 I plan with this essay to begin filling that gap in Auster criticism by investigating how the novel places its male protagonist in an existential confrontation with his own freedom, yet as postmodern critics insist, that freedom must be historicized within the culture of late-capitalism.2


One has to pay something. A man who has become conscious of the absurd is forever bound to it.--Albert Camus, "Philosophical Suicide" in The Myth of Sisyphus

In trying to reinvent the existential self to fit contemporary consciousness, the postmodern writer faces a double task: the work must respond both to the mainstream of postmodern thought and to the beleaguered and oft-challenged humanist tradition. This creates a duality that few writers have manipulated as deftly as Paul Auster has in The Music of Chance. Unquestionably opened to a sustained existential reading, the novel is centrally preoccupied with the nature of freedom and how one lives responsibly at a time when ideas of rationality, moral absolutes, and, some might say, even freedom itself, are radically problematized, if not forsaken altogether.

Auster's uncanny ability to inform postmodern thought with existential themes derives most directly from his literary...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100074313