Reduced to Gravel: On Paul Auster and the Isolationist Wall


In his 1990 novel, The Music of Chance, Paul Auster explores the use of stones and barriers as plot and metaphorical devices in telling the story of two men, Jim and Jack, who are forced into the construction of an ornamental stone wall after accruing a gambling debt to a pair of eccentric millionaires. If this sounds a bit wild, it is certainly meant to, for the novel toys with absurdity. But The Music of Chance, when paired with Auster’s later novel, 2009’s Invisible, also functions as a very clever piece of fiction that, particularly in a political climate where a presidential candidate advocates isolationism via a wall separating the United States from Mexico, feel necessary and urgent. When plots to implement such extreme separation clog television, print, and online media, Auster’s vision in these books—that such constructions, while acting as representations of humanity itself, are ultimately detrimental to progress—is one to take to heart.

To those familiar with Auster’s writing, his use of stones as both subject and metaphor may seem obvious. Stones have appeared in several of his novels and often materialized in the poetry he wrote during the 1970s. Though many of the references from this early period are abstract, in the poem “Quarry,” for example, we find a more tangible association. Extending from the third to fourth stanza, Auster writes, “For the crumbling of the earth / underfoot / is music in itself, and to walk among these stones / is to hear nothing / but ourselves.” In these lines, Auster lyrically interprets man and stone as one. This idea can also be seen in the poems “S.A. 1911-1979” (“Stone wall. Stone heart. Flesh and blood”), and the multipart “Disappearances,” which states, “that for the whole of life / a stone / will give way to another stone / to make a wall,” that, “the wall is a word,” and in its seventh section:

He is alone. And from the moment he begins to breathe,

he is nowhere. Plural death, born

in the jaws of the singular,

and the word that would build a wall
from the innermost stone
of life.

One can argue that Auster’s interest in employing such visuals comes from his admiration for French author Maurice Blanchot, whose story, “The Idyll,” was first published in 1952. Found in the small book Vicious Circles, which Auster himself translated into English in 1985, the story concerns a stranger receiving shelter at a “Home” in exchange for labor at a local quarry. The purpose of this shelter is to prepare the stranger for life in society. He is seen as an isolated being in need of refinement, much like the rock he chisels away. Again, here we have man and stone operating in close association, and this notion is clearly witnessed in Auster’s The Music of Chance. In the novel, Jim Nashe inherits a lump of money from his dead father and sets off “to drift for a while, to travel around from place to place and see what happen[s].” Before long, he picks up Jack Pozzi, a gambler, who tells Jim about an opportunity to win some easy money playing poker against a pair of eccentric lottery winners. The millionaires are named Flower and Stone, and while gambling at the duo’s massive, remote estate, Jim and Jack end up losing everything they own, including Jim’s car. Unable to pay, Flower and Stone offer Jim and Jack the opportunity to work off their debt, to stay on their property for fifty days and build, as Flower states, a portion of a “Wailing Wall … of Ten Thousand Stones.” Outside, the millionaires have gathered ten thousand stones of identical size, each weighing sixty pounds, in order to construct a decorative wall. If Jim and Jack labor for fifty days, Flower and Stone decide, their debt will be considered paid in full.

Auster’s choice of the monikers Flower and Stone for his omni-powerful “bosses” not-so-subtly calls back to the suggestion of “man as rock” made in “Quarry,” but he also flirts with the ideas of “Disappearances” in The Music of Chance by implying that the identical stones used by Jim and Jack to construct the wall also represent the days of man, and that the repetitive actions taken by our protagonists during this labor signify the long, repetitive acts in man’s natural life. Each stone is an obstacle, faced in relative seclusion. And as more obstacles are conquered, a personal history is created, one with immense pain. After the men finish their fifty days of labor, they learn that Flower and Stone have billed them an additional three thousand dollars for food and entertainment expenses, which means they must continue working to pay off the new debt. This perpetual obligation drives Jack to try to escape, and he ends up beaten into a coma. Nevertheless, the process of constructing the “Wailing Wall” continues to be hyped as rewarding. “You put down a stone,” Murks, the armed guard who watches over Jim and Jack, proclaims, “and something happens. You put down another stone, and something more happens. There’s no big mystery to it. You can see the wall going up, and after a while it starts to give you a good feeling.” This “personal history” argument of Murks is reinforced late in the story, as Jim, now working alone, finds himself “awed” by his work. He begins keeping a numerical tally of his daily accomplishments, “to think of [the tally] as a journal, a logbook in which the numbers” stand “for his most intimate thoughts.” The life of man, Auster implies, is nothing more than a wall. Though each stone represents part of him, it is their collection, their assemblage, which makes up an existence. And yet, these same walls lead to personal damage. For Jack, they mean the end of his normal life (he eventually vanishes, and Jim assumes he has been killed). For Jim, without ruining the novel’s conclusion, walls mean a lack of progress and evolution. He is literally separated from the outside world, which, of course, we’re hearing calls for by certain politicians today, but Jim’s forced isolationism ultimately results in a grim revenge plot against the men responsible for his stagnation. So while the physical structures embody the existence of man, their construction leaves him with no future or hope. If we take this metaphor and apply it to current politics, it would be ominous, indeed.

In Invisible, a novel published nearly twenty years after The Music of Chance, Auster returns to the use of stone barriers as metaphor as he tells the story of Adam Walker, a character who enters the opening pages as a young poet at Columbia University in the late 1960s and who eventually dies from leukemia in California in 2007. Auster paints a stirring portrait of Walker by using three different narrators—Walker; his contemporary, James; and Cécile, a woman he knew during a brief time in France. These multiple narrators allow for the author to jump from first-, to second-, to third-person, a method that creates a living, breathing person in Walker, almost a collage of memory. We are with Walker through love triangles, a suggested incestuous relationship with his own sister, the brutal murder of a would-be mugger at the hands of Rudolf Born, his one-time benefactor, and his embarrassing banishment from France when he later tries to bring Born to justice. It is this flesh and blood creation that makes the novel’s closing paragraphs, with Auster’s choice to remove concrete answers to questions posed by characters throughout—Was Walker telling the truth about his incestuous relationship? Was Walker’s expulsion from France the work of Rudolf Born? Was Born more than he appeared?—difficult to digest. Rather than closing the gaps on the life of Walker at the end of the book, the reader is treated to a scene of sixty men and women crushing stones on a small island known as Quillia. We are denied the traditional, packaged conclusion, and must pause to dissect what these stones, and their slow destruction, actually mean.

Throughout Invisible, Auster continues to see man and stone as parallel ideas, and the suggestion of personal history argued in The Music of Chance remains, but now, instead of witnessing the building of a story/wall, we are observing the deconstruction of one. In the book’s closing passages, Auster offers his readers a lasting image of “fifty or sixty black men and women” huddled in a field, “hammers and chisels in their hands,” breaking stones into smaller stones, then into dust. Cécile has just fled the island home of Born, convinced that he is insane, her head spinning with questions. She finds herself in a “barren, dusty field cluttered with gray stones of various shapes and sizes,” and observes a company of workers pounding on the stones until they are “reduced to gravel.” It is enough to make her pause and exclaim, “that sound will always be with me,” as if, in experiencing this moment, she also has come to realize the symbolism of the crumbling earth. It is fitting that these stones, like humans, eventually return to dust. Harking back to his poetry, Auster has again brought the relation of earth and man together. But there is something more to this scene. It is closing the novel, after all, and it is clear that this stone-cutting labor is meant to comment on the events that have already transpired.

The workers, with “sweat glistening on every face,” can be seen as representations of both the storyteller and the audience. Their chisels, “a music of fifty or sixty clinking hammers, each one moving at its own speed,” (notice the many associations between stones and music made by Auster) are our systems of telling stories, our remembrance of individuals. As man’s life passes, his story splinters. The more the chisels fall, the smaller the stone, thus the less evident the story. With too many answers, with too many passes of the chisel, the story of man is over-explored. It is in these brief paragraphs that Auster reminds the reader that not all questions are answered in the grand story of life. It is in relating this to the reader that Auster answers these lingering character questions with a simple statement: in order to maintain the “realness” of the character of Adam Walker, elements of his life must remain hidden.

It is a haunting closure to a novel filled with provocative subject matter. As opposed to those in The Music of Chance, the stones in Invisible are not individually representative of the obstacles in life. There is no collective assemblage. Instead, each stone represents man and his story. Gone are the walls faced by Jim and Jack. In their place, a single stone, chiseled to dust, stands in for man and his story. It is a far simpler argument than in The Music of Chance, but it’s an effective one: the life of a man is but a single lump of earth, able to be molded and chiseled by those around it, by those who pass it through their hands, and with overexposure, it can splinter and crumble to nothing. And though a wall can be built with so many delicate stones, separating one group from another, its effectiveness is certainly tenuous. This once again winks to the writing of Blanchot, and the decision to conclude the novel in such a deliberately abrupt fashion forces the reader to consider the underlying meaning of this moment. In thinking this way, the motive of Auster becomes apparent: sometimes, the more we—readers and writers—pound on the rock, the less there is for us to handle, to interpret, and to understand. If we aren’t careful, the story can be lost. In other words, the mysteries of life cannot, and shouldn’t, be solved. Taken into the present political climate of the United States, this viewpoint argues for the fragility of mankind. If The Music of Chance shows the dangers of constructing a wall and enforcing isolationism, Invisible maintains that such action can turn man to dust, and isn’t that something we should all be considering as we decide the future of our nation?

Image: I. Takacs via Creative Commons.

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