Anna Blume is a young woman whose journalist brother, William, has gone missing. Being idealistic and hopeful, she travels to the City to try to find him, but soon finds that the task is near impossible. Auster stays clear of naming the City in question, but whatever has happened there is not a worldwide disaster, as Anna comes from a comfortable home and there is mention of another woman's children in the City being sent to 'England' for safety.
Armed only with the name and photograph of the man who was sent to replace William, Anna finds it is impossible to locate anyone or anything. Society has totally broken down, production has stopped, rumours about invaders prevail, the government seems to change on a regular basis and their only response to the needs of the people is to remove waste and bodies. In other words, the bare basics. Anna stumbles around, attempting to sustain herself and having little human contact at first. People scavenge, live rough, attack each other and join suicide cults. This is a bleak place indeed and Anna soon realises she has made a mistake, but is unable to leave.
However, although the City is a place of despair, Anna's story - written as a series of unsent letters to a friend - has its brightest moments in the stories of human interaction. As a portrait of a City when it has broken down, Auster's book is realistic and sobering. Whenever Anna finds somewhere she can briefly find solace, there is no guarantee she can find it again or that it will remain as a safe haven. Even the act of stumbling can be fatal and, although things may have a worth, people seem to be totally expendable. This would be a very interesting read for a book club, with lots of discussion points, and was an interesting and thought provoking read.