By Paul Auster
(*Book 8 has yet to be posted, please stay tuned!)
Mount Benson picked this for our online discussion. Even though I’ve already read two, as mentioned by his truly, I’ve never heard of this particular Auster book until he suggested it. Since I already like Auster and want to read more post-apocalyptic fiction, this was the perfect combination that inspired me to finally join in on the group review, so thanks for that, Mt B!
An unnamed country has been devastated by some unexplained event in the past. Anna Blume lives across the ocean, in a place apparently unaffected by the disaster. But she leaves her home and journeys to the ruined city in search of her brother, who disappeared some time ago. Although the country is fictional with its currency measured in glots, I had the sense that it represented America, with the city being New York and Anna's home was England. What do you guys think?
Like all the Auster protagonists I’ve encountered, Anna Blume is an insightful yet emotionally detached narrator. She writes a long letter to a former lover she has left behind relating the events of her life in the destroyed city. The general tone has the feel of a “low-key” post-apocalyptic tale. There is a lot of recounting of events and perceptions, but the most exciting thing that happens is when she’s lured away to an abandoned building to buy shoes, gets a glimpse of butchered human bodies hanging on meat hooks and makes a dramatic escape.
Like Mount Benson, I was surprised that In the Country of Last Things was fairly straight-ahead speculative fiction, with no genre deconstruction or post-modern devices that I could see. Although the action was low-key, there were some interesting and cool ideas. The aside about the Assassination Club could have been a story in itself yet only a couple of pages were devoted to it:
Rather than submit passively to the inevitable, those marked for assassination tend to become more alert, more vigorous in their movements, more filled with a sense of life – as though transformed by some new understanding of things. Many of them actually recant and opt for life again. But this is a complicated business. For once you join an Assassination Club, you are not allowed to quit. On the other hand, if you manage to kill your assassin, you can be released from your obligation – and, if you choose, be hired as an assassin yourself. That is the danger of the assassin’s job and the reason why it is so well paid.
In a devastated civilization, since nothing new is made anymore and trade with the outside world has almost entirely ceased, everyone has to make do with what they already have, and nothing, absolutely nothing, gets thrown out. And this goes for everything, from human waste to dead bodies. Everything gets re-used and recycled. Everyone’s trash is now everyone’s treasure. The trouble is, nothing lasts forever.
At some point, in order to survive in the city, Anna becomes a licensed scavenger, or object hunter. One of my favourite passages in the novel is when she’s out collecting and this particular section is probably why I enjoy Auster so much. He takes everyday things, like the lowly act of scavenging, and although he doesn’t necessarily elevate it, he definitely portrays it in a new and interesting light:
It is an odd thing, I believe, to be constantly looking down at the ground, always searching for broken and discarded things. For nothing is really itself anymore…
As an object hunter, you must rescue things before they reach this state of absolute decay. You can never expect to find something whole – for that is an accident, a mistake on the part of the person who lost it – but neither can you spend your time looking for what is totally used up. You hover somewhere in between, on the lookout for things that still retain a semblance of their original shape – even if their usefulness is gone. What another has seen fit to throw away, you must examine, dissect, bring back to life. A piece of string, a bottle-cap, an undamaged board from a bashed-in crate – none of these things should be neglected. Everything falls apart, but not every part of every thing, at least not at the same time. The job is to zero in on these little islands of intactness, to imagine them joined to other such islands, and those islands to still others, and thus to create new archipelagoes of matter. You must salvage the salvageable and learn to ignore the rest. The trick is to do it as fast as you can.
And because objects that were once plentiful or mass-produced are quickly disappearing, so too, are the words associated with them.
It is a slow but ineluctable process of erasure. Words tend to last a bit longer than things, but eventually they fade too, along with the pictures they once evoked. Entire categories of objects disappear—flowerpots, for example, or cigarette filters, or rubber bands—and for a time you will be able to recognize those words, even if you cannot recall what they mean. But then, little by little, the words become only sounds, a random collection of glottals and fricatives, a storm of whirling phonemes, and finally the whole thing just collapses into gibberish.
For Mount Benson, the theme of the novel was hope, which did not really occur to me until the end of the story. My first thought for the overall theme driving the novel was impermanence. But I think impermanence and hope are inextricably linked together. For Anna and the other characters, they need to let go of whatever they're clinging to before hope can even enter into the equation. The ones that cling to objects, like the bottle ship maker, or to people, like simple caretaker Willie, or to material comforts, like many of the former Woburn House patients, eventually meet their end. But the ones who learn how to let go, like Anna, who accepts the fact that she may never see her brother again, or Sam, who eventually gets over the loss of his book, or Victoria, who finally severs her connection to Woburn House and therefore, the memories of her father, then there is a remote chance for survival and maybe some hope for the future. It seems there are some very existential concepts here, but they can be construed as very Buddhist as well. I'd be very interested in hearing what others think. In any case, I thought this was a very good novel with some thought-provoking themes and ideas tying it together quite strongly.