Paul Auster – In The Country of Last Things

Paul Auster - In The Country of Last Things

I finished this book on the train yesterday and, like all of Auster’s books, I wanted to immediately turn the book over and start again.

But I didn’t, and maybe that says something about this particular book. Moon Palace I must have read over five times now, and The New York Trilogy has been read at least four times – I’ve turned these books over in my hands on the same day, reaching the end only to start at the beginning again. This didn’t happen with In The Country of Last Things.

Perhaps this is due to the plot itself. It’s a very different novel for Auster, it’s been described as a dystopian novel by most and yet it’s disturbingly contemporary in nature. I’m not sure if I could call it a dystopian novel myself, as it seems to me more an allegory of the ‘now’, of the land we find ourselves in today (albeit a cynical, dark and more twisted society than our own). The novel is written in the form of a letter from a young woman called Anna Blume who has travelled to an unnamed city to find her brother. The city itself seems steeped in mystery to those outside of it; those who go there very often don’t come back and it is implied that not a lot is known about the city other than that it is a dangerous place. The narrative is essentially exploratory which then grows into a  more personal account of survival, of relationships and of friendships which, in combination, explore the human condition in relation to the city these people find themselves in.

It’s a very dark novel. The city is in ruins. Buildings have collapsed or are nearing collapse, their interiors are often absent of furniture, no heating, no electricity (often), and a large percent of the population are homeless. If you are lucky enough to have a home you are also unlucky, those that own property’s tend to charge large amounts of money for rent and can, at any time, bully you out of the house with their hired mercenaries – if a member of the household dies and you struggle to pay the rent then the bullyboys come round, if the landlord chooses to the up the rent to a level you can’t afford then you’re thrown out on the streets. As such, there are numerous buildings that are vacant because not many can afford to stay in them – and if you attempt squatting you’ll find yourself in a prison camp, or dead, or both in sequence. To survive people either collect rubbish or  collect objects, the rubbish is collected and thrown into large furnaces to provide energy for those buildings that still have heating and electricity, and also for producing food. Objects, however, can be used again. They collect higher prices on the market but tend to be harder to find. Object collectors push shopping trolleys around the city looking for intact or semi-intact objects, but, though their job seems far from hazardous, they are often targets for Vultures – object collectors gone bad – or just more general thieves. Getting enough money to provide food for a week is enormously difficult, so every is forced to live moment to moment – unable to plan, or to be sure, of anything .

The most thriving industry in the city seems to be that of death. There are Euthanasia Clinics dotted around the city where people pay large amounts of money to be tucked into bed with a warm dinner (perhaps the only warm dinner they’ve had for years) and put to sleep. There are various levels of euthanasia – the more you pay, the more pleasure you get; prostitutes, feasts, hallucinogenics, a luxury room –  there is a great deal of money in the Euthanasia Clinics. There are the Runners; those who learn to run and run and run until their body becomes completely exhausted and destroys itself. The Assassins Guild who kill those that add their name to the assassination register, it is described as an alternative to the difficult decision that is taking your own life. If you manage to kill your assassin you are invited to become part of the assassins guild and are paid to assassinate others.

There seems to be no way out of the city once you are in it. People die everyday on the streets and, the following morning, the government sends trucks out to clean the city of the dead. Mugging, murder, rape, and suicide are commonplace.

Wow.

Now, Paul Auster’s not new to dark territory. His novels are constantly deconstructing the idea of ‘self’, of struggling against the absurdity of the world, or/and of being overwhelmed, but The Country of Last Things is almost a hyper intense novel of his other novels. It’s not as conceptually difficult as The New York Trilogy; in that NYT was quite a difficult read. Instead Last Things is an easier read but explores many of the difficulties found (often metaphorically) in his other works. We see Absurdism, we see elements of Baudrillard, even a personification of Post-modernism makes an appearance, and so in a weird way its like a summary of Auster by Auster – the theoretical seems more apparent in this novel than in his others, but at the same time the novel itself is not so tied up within its theory, not in the way that New York Trilogy or Pynchon’s Lot 49 become their theory in that the writing itself can be seen as a metaphor.

It doesn’t feel as playful as other Auster texts, but it is just as polished as any of his better known works. It is more approachable to the average reader (I would say) and a very enjoyable read (as enjoyable as a dystopian novel can be!). I think the novel shines when we begin to feel comfortable in the city and learn more about Anna and her involvement with other human beings. Here we begin to see the city through human interaction as opposed to a more general overview; it becomes more specific, closer to us, and then we begin to live it along with the characters as opposed to just seeing or witnessing it. The city comes alive at this point, and we can share in it because there is something human (human in a very loose way) to it.

Anna never gives up, she never stops loving, and sometimes I found myself wanting to push my hands into the book and shake her, shake her and say, ‘give up! Give up now!’ because it seemed to become so hard, so beyond anything we could imagine a human being put through, that I almost couldn’t imagine someone lasting. I guess my error was that occasionally I realised the book was a book, I divorced myself from the world at these points and suddenly couldn’t fathom it, I realised that it was a fiction – but that fiction was also a fiction of now: of homelessness, of loan sharks, of suicide, of objects, of governments we didnt hope for…

I loved it, and I will read it again. It is a very emotional/moving novel. It makes you think – and that’s what’s most important.

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