Faber and Faber's 2005 publication of some of Paul Auster's novels in collected form has made it more convenient to embark on Auster binges, eating up two or three of his novels in succession. It also provides a cunning method of sneaking more novels into the holiday luggage. ('Holdall heavy? Can't think why, sweetie, I've only got one book in there.' ).
Volume two of Collected Novels consists of 1990's The Music of Chance, 1992's Leviathan, and 1994's Mr Vertigo. The first novel in this 600+ page volume is The Music of Chance. Like many Auster novels (for example the three novellas comprising the New York trilogy; The Brooklyn Follies; Invisible), it hinges on the way chance meetings or events can transform lives. In this case, the life is that of Jim Nashe, a Boston fireman in his early thirties, whose world is thrown into tumult. First, his estranged father, who he hasn't seen for thirty years, dies. Then Jim's wife Therese walks out on Jim and their two year-old daughter Juliet. Jim comes to the only child-care solution he can think of on his limited fireman's wage, which is to leave Juliet with his sister Donna in Minnesota. Too late, he finds out this could have been avoided; six months after his father died, Jim is tracked down by his father's lawyer who informs him that Jim's deceased father left both Jim and Donna a substantial inheritance. But Juliet is settled and happy in her new home. Besides, Jim has been seized by a wanderlust he has never previously known. He is driven to gobbling up thousands of miles in his new car, traveling across his country.
We learn all this in the first couple of pages. We also learn, on page 1, that Jim happens by chance to meet a garishly dressed kid in his early twenties by the name of Jack Pozzi (say it quickly, it sounds like Jackpot. Or Ponzi. So, one extreme of fortune or the other.)
Pozzi plays poker for a living, or so he says. Jim is struck by an audacious idea that would be of mutual benefit to them both. But is Pozzi all strutting braggadacio or can he deliver what he promises?
And so the adventure develops. As usual with Auster, bizarre events occur, but unlike many less methodical writers, Auster meticulously rationalises them. Thus, each time Jim makes an ostensibly implausible decision, we are party to the reasoning behind it, and Auster's intelligence and clever wheedling convinces us that each character's behaviour is actually rational given their state of mind.
This lifts the story out of the realm of the ordinary, as does the uncertainty evoked throughout: does Jim develop paranoia and delusions? Or is he simply wisely sceptical? Do he and Pozzi misinterpret the determination of a couple of eccentrics for something more sinister? Do they misread the stoical employee as having malignant intent?
When Jim develops violent, even murderous urges towards an innocent, the way Auster has painted the gradual deterioration of his mindset, stroke by painstaking stroke, makes the horrific urges genuinely credible and therefore truly shocking.
The ending is somewhat unsatisfying because of the lack of resolution of the reader's questions, but then Auster is too smart to offer up easy answers on a plate. The drama is ongoing in our minds. It's vintage Auster - another stylish offering from a master of elegance, understated brilliance and suspense.