on 7 October 2000
Inherent in "In the Country of Last Things" is this: "Our lives are no more than the sum of manifold contingencies, and no matter how diverse they might be in their details, they all share an essential randomness in their design." One such contingency occurs when the protagonist Anna Blume rediscovers a forgotten blue notebook accompanied by six yellow pencils. This is the catalyst for a letter that may as well be called "In the Country of Last Things." The letter comes across as an exaggerated account, an apocalyptic depiction of a city stripped of its humanity. Old laws that once held the society together have been supplanted by newer laws that will again be replaced by even more corrupt and venal ones.
Anna Blume is a girl who comes to the city in search of her brother, but, instead, finds disintegration, desperation, and hopelessness. She is really no different, only her story, from the other inhabitants of the city. In the city, everyone is searching for something or someone that has disappeared. For "nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you. And you mustn't waste your time looking for them. Once a thing is gone, that is the end of it." The immediate and never-ending concern is hunger: hunger in the literal sense, as food like everything else in the city, is in short supply; and hunger in the abstract, wherein people crave friendship, love, connection, and a shared understanding of language and meaning. The constant struggle is not to give up or lose hope, and thereby your life.
In the "Last Things," Paul Auster fills the pages with vivid accounts of a city in ruin, on the verge of complete collapse. It is an unnamed city, therefore, one may recognize it as his own, or what one day may be his own. But through the narrator of Anna, and the people she befriends and loves, the reader is offered hope in a world of hopelessness, a reason for optimism even though it seems baseless. Precarious is life, subject to coincidences, and the important thing, the vital thing, is to connect and be hopeful. A person, a city, may just depend on it.
"In the Country of Last Things" is an imperfect novel. Too often the reader is introduced to words or ideas that seem to come out of nowhere and then just disappear before achieving full understanding, but this, too, may serve to add to the impermanence of ideas and objects that are so often lost, or in danger of being lost, to a civilization. Sometimes we do lose thoughts or objects or people before we ever learn to understand and appreciate them.
Some of the reviewers here describe In the Country of Last Things as a realistic work. I disagree. This book is an allegory and aims at nothing else. But such is the force of Auster's writing that the reader is prepared to suspend disbelief.
It is a unique characteristic of the industrial world that none of us has a complete vision of how it works, and it is easy to imagine that what we don't understand, let alone control, could suddenly cease to function; Auster plays on this basic fear to weave a morbid, often horrific tale.
The heroine, in search of her brother, finds herself trapped in a city that we recognise as having once been 20th century American, but has now become a crucible of destitution, savagery, and violent struggle for survival. This grim novella describes a society which has ceased creating or even producing, and is thus reduced to consuming what is left... until that runs out. It holds a mirror to our own compulsory consumption, waste and greed, and it forces us to consider the actual value of modern material comfort. It also lets Auster exploit on a grander scale his pet themes of decay and degradation, of homelessness and its impact on identity.
Post-modern decay apparently isn't pretty. It is a place of book burners and ghouls, of cannibals and suicidal fanatics, of pathetic attachment to the most miserable objects, and of general disregard for human life and dignity, even if hope and love aren't entirely missing. But it makes for a fascinating read, one that it is difficult to complete in anything but a single, mesmerising sitting.
on 13 September 2013
A faithful reader of all of Auster's books, it's this one that I felt takes one into an unspeakable inner as well as outer darkness - though not one that can still be valuable to access through literature. I was faced with such an overwhelming emptiness, such an intense absence of hope and such a keen note of desolation that in this case I found putting the book down not only easy, but necessary in order to have time to devote to books I actually want to be reading. A stark thing to say about an outstanding author - but appropriate from my point of view. I wouldn't have purchased it, had I known.
on 19 December 2003
Paul Auster’s novel offers a haunting picture of a devastated society with all its miseries and struggles for survival. It is highly reminiscent of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and although Paul Auster’s novel is also set in the future, it is a chilling reflection of contemporary social reality. It is a short, sustained masterpiece, truly unforgettable.
on 17 February 2010
I've heard a lot of good things about Paul Auster's The New York trilogy, so when I spied this I decided to grab it. It's a short, epistolary, dystopian novel. I suppose it's technically science fiction, but there's no sense of time. It could be set in some different past, present, or future.
Anna Blume is writing a letter to her childhood friend, but I doubt she expects it will ever make it to that friend. Anna has gone into the city where everything has fallen apart to try and find her brother, a journalist. The city is wretched--governments are collapsing and replacing themselves, but nothing ever changes. Bodies are collected to be burned for fuel, but that is about it. People trick others out of their money or they scavenge for trash or salvage to get by. The City itself is a sinister character that no one can escape from.
Anna Blume is relatively lucky in that she meets some wonderful people in the city, but then they fade away and disappear and become "last things." Anna meets a mother figure, a sinister father figure, a lover, a child, a different lover, an uncle figure, and several friends, but most of them disappear from her life in various horrible circumstances. It has commentary on the government, human interactions, and society without ever becoming preachy. The end is ambiguous, and depending on your disposition you can see it has a happy or a despairing ending.
It's marvelously written, and the prose is very tight and focused. Anna Blume's voice is believable. Initially, she goes into a lot of background of the city to paint it out to the friend she is writing to, but just as I was beginning to lose interest, she moves into the main storyline. It's a novel that stays with you and makes you think long after you have finished. Time Out said it best:
"As harrowing and intellectually playful as Beckett, In the Country of Last Things remains in the mind and the senses."
on 5 June 2006
I read this book about 15 years ago and still have the haunting image of Auster's 'runners' playing in my mind. As a dystopian, spoilt future this is precise and believable. Close to the end of the Book of Illusions I am ready to re-read the country of last things. If you enjoy this try Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake for a double bill of near future pleasure!
on 24 November 2003
This is a finely written, heart-breaking account of a woman`s survival in a disappearing, ghostly world. It is also a story about survival of love and humanity.
This is the first novel of Paul Auster I`m reading, and I would definitely search for other titles of him, as well. He manages to create out of words such a vivid image of the world falling apart,that sometimes I shrugged with fear,feeling as if I was almost touching the solitudine of Anne Blume, the miserable life of the citizens, the slow fading of human morality.The best thing about the novel is that in such a dark, tragic narrative, love seems to prevail in a certain, very subtle but very powerful way. These can be told also as four stories about love: first, the love for her brother for whom Anne Blume is looking; then love for Ysabel- the woman she saved on the street; Sam Ferr- the journalist who dreams about the book of his life, and Victoria- the runner of Woburn House- a temporary shelter for sick and poor souls.Each of them is a defender of humanity in his own way,a living proof that even in the most unhuman conditions love and hope for a better life can survive.
on 19 January 2012
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.
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.
A dystopian novel set in a crumbling city in the not-too-distant future, 'In the Country of Last Things' is narrated by Anna, a young woman who left her comfortable existence to find her brother. This is one of those rare books that is instantly gripping from the very first page and remains so right to the finish. The writing immediately draws you in, and I felt a quick bond with the characters. Anna is writing a letter, detailing her experiences since arriving in 'the city', addressed to a former lover back home in a place which appears to be untouched by whatever disaster has befallen the unnamed country she has travelled to.
It's a really clever piece of writing - literary, with a great turn of phrase and many sentences that really stand out, yet in no way pretentious. It's the first Paul Auster novel I have read and if his style is like this consistently, I want to read them all. The best authors manage to write in a way that is clearly outstanding, but is easy to read and doesn't appear to be trying too hard. He depicts a frighteningly believable post-apocalyptic world. Whilst details are vague, there doesn't appear to have been any single great disaster that has befallen the city, more a culmination of all-too-possible problems - poor governments, political unrest, dwindling resources, economic woes. The city and its inhabitants have gradually descended into a much less civilised state than the one that they apparently started off in.
On some levels, the city does still function - some food and goods are still available, some aspects of the government still work. There is still a law of sorts. This feels a much more believable situation than a world where everything had simply stopped. The way people are still clinging to some of the old norms of society seems entirely likely to be the way real people would behave. Many aspects of the world described are not very different from real world scenarios where society has been threatened - during wars, following major disasters, or where totalitarian regimes have taken hold. The world of 'the city' seems to combine elements of all of these, without getting bogged down in trying to explain the history of it all.
I liked the fact that the book seemed to contain the promise of a better world out there somewhere - it provided a source of some hope, unlike some dystopian novels where the entire world has disintegrated. And despite the fact it is a grim story in many ways, with really heartwrenching moments, it is not overly depressing. There are good things and good people within its pages, and ultimately it is a story of survival. So I did not find it entirely disturbing, whilst it's not what I'd call cheery either.
A really good read for anyone who enjoys well written fiction. Whilst not a conventional thriller, it is really gripping and eventful, and the characters here are interesting and strongly drawn even though some of them aren't in it for long. The city itself is conjured up in all its crumbling former glory, and you are left with strong sense of what it was like to live there and stronger sense still that you are glad that you don't. Excellent piece of writing, and I would strongly recommend it.
on 5 January 2001
As a major Auster fan, I was disappointed by this book. Not only was it incredibly depressing, but I thought it lacked the true originality of the many other Auster book's I've read. The description of life in the city seemed to go on and on and was somewhat predictable. Also, the format of having the story told through a long letter just didn't work. I would recommend reading any of Auster's other books (such as New York Trilogy, Leviathan, Moon Palace or Music of Chance) before reading this one.