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Monday, July 10, 2017

The Music of Chance (1990) by Paul Auster


Book Review
The Music of Chance (1990)
by Paul Auster

  Paul Auster is balls deep on the first edition of the 1001 Books list.  I was thinking about Auster while recently reading a book about the formation and maintenance of canons (called Canons), published around the same time as this novel.  The trend, in those days, was to oppose canons and critique the process of canon formation, often in the key of "dead, white men."  Ultimately, this critique foundered on the realities of institutional pedagogy: One has to teach something in freshman English, but it is this time period which gives us the concepts and vocabulary to accurately describe the canon forming process in the same way that I am attempting to describe it via the 1001 Books project.

  Most of the disparate essays in Canons deal with 19th century poetry, but one interesting essay on canon formation for American fiction between 1960 and 1975 makes some interesting empirical observations about what is essentially the current canon forming process.  The author's hypothesis is that the best place to start is the best seller list, and that you then overlay the best seller list with critical response- he doesn't differentiate between critical response before best seller status.

  If you want to apply this quick and dirty method to say, the current New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller list, you see quick results.  Of the 15 titles on this list, nearly half are automatically disqualified because the best-selling author has no critical audience.  These are titles by: David Baldacci, Nora Roberts, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, Janet Evanovich, Dean Koontz and John Grisham.   To the extent that any of these writers are likely to sneak onto any literary canon, it will be with a single, early novel.   Almost every other author on the New York Times Hardcover Top 15 Bestseller list can be excluded with a single Google Search:  Elin Hilderbrand (writer of summer beach read novels according to her wikipedia page), Paula Hawkins (thrillers), Adriana Trigiani (YA fiction), Don Winslow (Police procedurals), Lee Child (Jack Reacher books).

  This leaves us with two possibilities:

1.  The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
2.  Beach House for Rent by Mary Alice Monroe

  Since the list is rolling, you have to imagine doing this  maybe 30-40 times over the course of a year, and then toting up points at the end, that would give you your best canonical candidates for fiction.   Looking at these two, Arundhati Roy, who ticks all the serious lit boxes AND doesn't write fiction very often, seems like the obvious choice.   If you were looking for one book to maintain literary relevance over the summer, it would be the Roy novel, and if you were going to bet on one book from this time period, it would be that one.

  Which all goes to say that the inclusion of so many Paul Auster titles on the first 1001 Books list represents another manifestation of this best seller/critical appeal overlay.  Auster sells books and he appeals to critics, this makes each of his books, even the non best-selling titles, candidates for canonical inclusion.  He, like other artists writing in the "present" benefit from the easy access to pre-canonical "best of" lists, typically organized by year.

  The Music of Chance is an interesting novel, like other of his books it blends dark action and European style philosophical musings, with a firm understanding of the role of genre in serious fiction.  His books are recognizable but slightly askew, they go down easy, but stay with you over time.

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