Category Archives: Auster, Paul

‘Timbuktu’ by Paul Auster

I recently read Paul Auster’s brilliant novel, The Music of Chance, as my contribution to AnnaBookBel’s Paul Auster Reading Week. It was fun reading all the blog posts on Auster’s works, some I’d read, but some I hadn’t. Timbuktu was one of the few of Auster’s earlier novels that I hadn’t read so I was very pleased to find that I won it as part of Annabel’s giveaway at the end of the Auster week. I was between books when it arrived, I read the first line, and as is often the case with Auster’s works, I couldn’t stop.

Mr. Bones knew that Willy wasn’t long for this world. The cough had been inside him for over six months, and by now there wasn’t a chance in hell that he would ever get rid of it.

Mr. Bones is a dog, Willy’s pet and companion. Willy’s full name is Willy G. Christmas and he is on his last legs. They have recently arrived in Baltimore in search of Willy’s old teacher, Bea Swanson, the only problem is that he’s not sure where she lives, or if he can make it there. Willy has two things to accomplish before he dies, firstly he needs to find a new owner for Mr. Bones and secondly he needs to find someone to whom he can bequeath his only valuable possessions, his manuscripts; although Willy has been homeless since the death of his mother, he is also a writer, and Bea is the only person he trusts. That he fails in both of these goals is typical of Willy.

Willy’s sidekick was a hodgepodge of genetic strains – part collie, part Labrador, part spaniel, part canine puzzle – and to make matters worse, there were burrs protruding from his ragged coat, bad smells emanating from his mouth, and a perpetual bloodshot sadness lurking in his eyes.

The story is told from Mr. Bones’ viewpoint; as Willy likes to talk and Mr. Bones likes to listen we find out about Willy’s life. Born in 1947 (the same year as Auster) as William Gurevitch, he was brought up in Brooklyn by his Polish immigrant parents. When his father died just after Willy’s twelfth birthday he was brought up by his mother alone. At university Willy took a lot of drugs and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. After he was released he switched from drugs to alcohol, which stabilised him a little, and he then had the experience that changed his life: one time whilst watching late-night T.V. he had a conversation with an on-screen Santa Claus, who convinced Willy to ‘ask nothing from the world and give it only love in return.’ Willy changed his name and had a tattoo of Santa on his right arm. His relationship with his mother was strained and it was at this point that Willy began to spend the summer months wandering around the country only to return to his mother’s apartment in the winter. He also resumed his writing. But the years went by and Willy felt the need of a dog, both for companion and protection. So he got Mr. Bones. Mr. Bones loved Willy and Willy loved Mr. Bones. Indeed, Willy believed that Mr. Bones’ body contained the soul of an angel.

When the narrative turns back to the present, an exhausted Willy has come to a stop on the steps of a building. Willy enters into a brilliant monologue about his life and then falls asleep. Mr. Bones curls up against Willy and falls asleep, then events get a little confusing.

That was when he dreamed the dream in which he saw Willy die. It began with the two of them waking up, opening their eyes and emerging from the sleep they had just fallen into – which was the sleep they were in now, the same one in which Mr. Bones was dreaming the dream.

Ok, it’s a dream within a dream, which is nothing new, but it’s done well, and when they both wake up events follow a similar course as the dream, with Mr. Bones fleeing from Willy, whom he believes to be dead, and fleeing from some policemen, whom he believes will take him into a ‘shelter’, something which Willy has warned him about. Mr. Bones now has to make his own way in the world and the narrative becomes a bit more of an adventure story.

Spoiler alert: I’m going to reveal the ending in this paragraph.
Mr. Bones has some bad times and some good times but as we get near the end of the book we realise it’s not going to end well for him. After being adopted by a loving family he is then left at a kennel whilst they go on holiday, he escapes, only to find himself out in the snow, ill and exhausted, much like Willy was earlier. He ends up running into oncoming traffic to commit suicide—an ending very similar to the ending of The Music of Chance. It made me think that both novels have similar themes: aimless/lost wandering; characters with a lack of purpose; the death of a close companion or friend; being trapped in an almost inescapable situation; escaping from situation only to commit suicide. This is not meant as criticism of Auster as I often like writers who work away on their obsessions, each time from a slightly different angle, but I probably wouldn’t have noticed the similarity between both books if I hadn’t read them so close together. Timbuktu is another excellent novel by Auster and I’m glad I finally got round to reading it.

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‘The Music of Chance’ by Paul Auster

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 Music of Chance was originally published in 1990 and it is one of my favourite books by Auster. I had intended to read 4 3 2 1 for Annabookbel’s Paul Auster Reading Week but I didn’t plan ahead, so I thought I’d re-read an old favourite instead.

Paul Auster usually starts his books with a great opening sentence, and The Music of Chance is no different—see quote at top of page. Over the next few pages we discover that Jim Nashe had inherited two hundred thousand dollars from his father, whom he hadn’t seen for over thirty years. This inheritance arrived at a pivotal time in Nashe’s life as his wife, Thérèse, had recently left him and his daughter was now living with his sister. After paying off some debts, he bought a new car and went on the road for two weeks, driving for seven straight hours each day and staying in motels at night.

Every morning he would go to sleep telling himself that he had had enough, that there would be no more of it, and every afternoon he would wake up with the same desire, the same irresistible urge to crawl back into the car. He wanted that solitude again, that nightlong rush through the emptiness, that rumbling of the road along his skin.

He returned to work but soon decided to leave his job, sell all his possessions and go on the road for good. He had no plans but he thought he’d soon get bored with it, only he didn’t, instead he criss-crossed the country, occasionally dropping in to see his daughter, Juliette.

The thought of just disappearing, or running away, from one’s current life must occur to everyone at some point in their life. But, if we had the money to do so, would we act on it? Most, likely not, but the characters in Auster’s books often do act on these impulses and it is what makes them compelling to read.

Then, after just over a year on the road, he meets Jack Pozzi, a twenty-three year old poker player, and this chance encounter knocks his life into another lane. Nashe meets Pozzi hitchhiking, his clothes are all bloody and he looks dazed; it turns out that he’d just escaped from a beating after a poker game turned violent after he was suspected of hustling them. He was trying to raise some money for another poker game with a couple of millionaires, whom he likens to Laurel and Hardy, in just a few days’ time. Nashe gets to know Pozzi, and although he’s brash and cocky, Nashe realises he is a good poker player and makes the proposal to fund Pozzi ten thousand dollars for a fifty-fifty split of the winnings. This is nearly the last of his funds.

Bill Flower and Willie Stone are a strange couple; they won their money on the lottery a few years earlier and now live in the same mansion albeit in separate wings. Stone’s wife had died, whilst Flower’s wife had left him, neither had re-married. They both enjoy playing poker but have other interests, which become significant later on in the novel; Stone is building a scale-model of a city, called ‘The City of the World’, which he intends to spend the rest of his life working on, whilst Flower collects all sorts of objects, especially the stones of a fifteenth-century castle from Ireland which he’d bought, dismantled and shipped to America. The intention is to build a wall with the stones.

Now, halfway through this novel they begin their game of poker. Pozzi is confident as he had beaten Flower and Stone a few years ago. The two millionaires, however, have been coached by a well-known poker player and are confident also.

Things don’t go as well as expected for Nashe and Pozzi and they have to pay off their debt to the millionaires. If you are intending to read this book it may be a good idea to stop reading here as I’m going to reveal some details about the end of the book.

When I first read The Music of Chance many years ago I found it an amazing book, very nearly perfect, except for the ending. I expected that Nashe would never pay off his debt and he’d end up performing a Sisyphean task; if not building, dismantling, rebuilding the wall, then something similar, another task maybe; but Auster just cut the story off with a suicidal car crash. I remember feeling a bit ‘cheated’ by the ending, but now, after a second reading, I’m not so sure, and I think maybe Auster was right in ending it the way he did. Nashe’s year-long driving spree could be seen as a long slow suicide attempt; maybe suicide was an unconscious goal all along and now that he gets control of his car once again he can finish the job.

Pozzi had been beaten up, possibly killed, after trying to escape and Nashe may have felt that he also had no way out of the contract. But he kills himself, as well as Murks and Floyd, just when he is celebrating being clear of his debt. Does Nashe believe, like Pozzi did, that he isn’t really going to escape from his debt, or is it the freedom that he finds unendurable? I must admit that I like this violent, destructive ending more than I did before.

A film was made of the book in 1993 which was directed by Philip Haas and starred James Spader, as well as a cameo by Paul Auster. I have seen the film and have a feeling that the ending was changed. I shall have to watch it again as I remember really liking it.

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