Enigma Variations

Traffic and Laughter

by Ted Mooney
Knopf, 402 pp., $19.95

Paul Auster
Paul Auster; drawing by David Levine

Paul Auster is one of those protean novelists who cannot be identified with a recognizable voice or predictable range of subject. There are however common characteristics in his six novels: a fondness for enigmatic situations, a fascination with the ways that chance and destiny may seem to intersect, and an indulgence in symbolism that calls frequent attention to itself but is likely to remain opaque. In the three novels (City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room) that make up his so-called New York trilogy, Auster undertakes a kind of structuralist approach to the detective novel: with the crime left vague and the characters and situations enigmatic, he plays with the conventions of the genre in a rather dry and abstract fashion.

More recently, Auster has tried to reach beyond skeletal forms of fiction. Moon Palace, the work immediately preceding the one under review, is a loosely organized, first-person narrative told by an orphaned, self-destructive Columbia student who has been informally adopted by an eccentric and tyrannical old cripple. Nothing is resolved at the end, where once again the moon appears, the moon that weaves in and out of the book in a myriad guises ranging from the name of the Chinese restaurant that gives the novel its title to the imaginary moon voyages of Cyrano de Bergerac and Jules Verne and the actual moon landing in 1969. Throughout this fluent if not garrulous novel, which contains lengthy stories within stories, one senses the hovering presences of Saul Bellow and Augie March, the fatherless, questing, often adopted young man that he created.

By contrast, The Music of Chance is a carefully plotted work, elegantly spare in its narration as it narrows to a concentrated conclusion of great intensity. At what point, the novel seems to ask, do random events and chance encounters—of which there can apparently be any number—come to assume an inevitable quality?

At the beginning of The Music of Chance, a Boston fireman named Jim Nashe, whose wife has just left him, unexpectedly inherits $200,000 from his father, whom he has not seen in over thirty years. The money comes too late to be of much help to him: there is no way to retrieve his marriage or to reclaim his young daughter, whom he has handed over to his sister to raise. Instead, he decides to surrender to the exhilarating freedom of gratuitous action and drives aimlessly around the country in his new Saab until the money runs out.

If there was any drawback, it was simply that it would have to end, that he could not go on living this life forever. At first, the money had seemed inexhaustible to him, but after he had been traveling for five or six months, more than half of it had been spent. Slowly but surely, the adventure was turning into a paradox. The money was responsible for his…

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