'It's an Imaginary Place, But It's also Realistic': The Music of Chance

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Author: Ilana Shiloh
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 18,239 words

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[(essay date 2002) In the following essay, Shiloh chronicles the interplay of random events and fate in The Music of Chance and applies Aristotle's study of tragedy to the novel's formal elements.]

Chance is an inherently ambiguous concept. It conflates diametrically opposed notions: hazard and destiny, good fortune and bad luck.1 Yet, as noted by Derrida, among the multiple and contradictory associations of chance--unpredictability, haphazardness, adventure--there is one privileged sense: the fall. We tend to intuitively associate chance with a downward movement. This intuition is encoded in language: the English words "chance" and "case" originates in the Latin cadere, which signifies "to fall"; their derivations can be found in "occasion," "coincidence" and "decadence." Chance has the implication of that which we fall into, or which befalls us by surprise--the incident, the accident, the final throw of the dice. It embraces the interplay between indeterminacy and inevitability, between fortuity and fate. To believe in chance, concludes Derrida, "can just as well indicate that one believes in the existence of chance and that one does not, above all, believe in chance, since one looks for and finds a hidden meaning at all costs" ("My Chances/Mes Chances," p. 4).

None of Auster's novels displays this ambiguity more starkly and more tragically than The Music of Chance (1990). The dual nature of chance is metaphorically conveyed through the setting of the road--traditionally associated with the unpredictability of accident--juxtaposed with that of the castle and the wall, which suggest the finality of destiny. The shift from the road to the castle, the turning point of the story, is the poker game. The tension between randomness and determinism as the forces governing human life informs both the novel's theme and its narrative structure. It is never resolved; the element of fate insinuates itself into the narrative, destabilizing the ontology of the fictional world and its epistemological horizon.

The ambiguity of chance is already incipient in the first paragraph, which introduces the protagonist of the novel and announces its central themes, as well as its narrative structure:

For one whole year he did nothing but drive, traveling back and forth across America as he waited for the money to run out. ... Three days into the thirteenth month, he met up with the kid who called himself Jackpot. It was one of those random, accidental encounters that seem to materialize out of thin air--a twig that breaks off in the wind and suddenly lands at your feet. Had it occurred at any other moment, it is doubtful that Nashe would have opened his mouth. But because he had already given up, because he figured there was nothing to lose anymore, he saw the stranger as a reprieve, as a last chance to do something for himself before it was too late. And just like that, he went ahead and did it. Without the slightest tremor of fear, Nashe closed his eyes and jumped.(p. 1)

The opening sequence foregrounds the motif of chance; the choice of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100074307