The perfect book?
The first time I read it in 2001, every word seemed perfect. A beautiful parable without a word out of place. This time, it wasn’t perfect; some sentences jarred, the novel didn’t absorb me to the same degree.
I think a novel can only ever be perfect for a particular time and place. For one reading only. And yet with this said, I still loved this novel.
Plot and commentary
Compared to most novels, the plot is easy to remember; maybe this is why the term ‘parable’ seems appropriate. Here’s the plot with commentary (you might want to look away):
Jim Nashe comes into an inheritance just after his wife leaves him. He leaves his job as a firefighter and starts driving across America in a new car. He loves the freedom, encapsulated in the car with classical music at full volume.
But the money begins to run out when he picks up a hitch-hiker, a plucky young man named Jack Pozzi. Pozzi is a professional poker player, and he has a game the next night at the house of two eccentric millionaires who aren’t very good at cards. It should be easy money, and Nashe puts up his last $10 000 on a whim.
The millionaires are Flower and Stone, and they came into their money through a lottery win. I noticed for the first time the obvious parallelism – Flower and Stone forced into partnership because of good luck and, after they lose the money and then the car and then go into debt, Pozzi and Nashe forced into partnership because of bad luck.
Back up a moment. Stone has built a miniature city. It is a place of both whimsy and menace. Everything looks nostalgic, a little boy is eating an icecream on the street, but in the prison a prisoner is being executed by firing squad. There is a menacing justice in the miniature city.
(Nashe leaves the card room to look at the city; he picks out the tiny figures of Stone and Flower and keeps them. Later, Pozzi pinpoints this as the point when he started to lose. When Nashe smashed up the instruments of reality. Nashe responds by burning the two models. After this, things get worse.)
Flower and Stone extend the mixture of whimsy and menace to Nashe and Pozzi. To pay off their debt, they have to build a stone wall. The stones are the ruins of a castle the millionaires have transported from Europe. The menace comes when their supervisor begins to wear a gun and when they realise there is no way out – a huge fence blocks their way.
I’ve been thinking of Pozzi and Nashe building that wall. It’s a comforting image when I’m not enjoying work. (Which is quite a lot lately.)
I find it fascinating that Auster has released into the world two official versions of the ending. In the book version, the story ends with Nashe driving into an oncoming truck when he is given a chance to drive his car again in celebration of finishing. There is little doubt that he is about to die.
In the film version, he survives the crash and is picked up the next morning by a passing driver (played by Paul Auster). It echoes strongly with Nashe picking up a badly bruised Pozzi earlier in the novel.