How does the world end? According to Paul Auster’s vision, it does so slowly, in a nightmare of dissolution and decay. In the nameless city that is the setting for In the Country of Last Things, a building that stands one day is gone the next, whole streets mysteriously disappear, thousands sleep in the gutters, prey to inclement weather and the vicious toll gatherers who charge for the privilege of crossing the rubble. Food is scarce, and some people are so thin that three or four will chain themselves together so as not to be blown away. Long lines may gather for merely the rumor of food or a newspaper to keep one warm. Even the weather is erratic and uncertain, sunny and hot one day and snowing the next, then fog, then several days of rain. The only sure thing is death, whose stench fills the streets.
Into this slowly disintegrating city comes Anna Blume, a young girl in search of her brother William, a journalist who has disappeared. The novel is her letter back home to an unnamed friend. She describes her education in the art of survival, how she avoids the dangers of the toll gatherers or the trickery of vendors who sell painted cardboard for food. She marvels how in such an environment one’s humanity—feelings of compassion and grief—does not disappear altogether; but one must make compromises. How else, she asks, do you cope “when you find yourself looking at a dead child, at a little girl lying in the street without any clothes on, her head crushed and covered with blood?” She becomes an “object hunter,” making a mean living by searching for usable objects to sell. In a society where nothing new is manufactured, things already made, the “last things,” are the only commodity, even if they are only pieces of string or the peel of an orange. There is an undue reverence for the past and a prevalent sense that no matter how bad it was yesterday, it was surely better then than it is going to be today.
This bleak vision is what one might expect from an end-of-the-world novel, but there are some startling omissions. The narration, though vivid in description, is very abstract. Anna says little about what has caused this world to slowly self-destruct (there is simply a brief reference to “the Troubles”). Neither does she spend much time grieving over the irrevocable loss of life as we know it, nor offer a moral warning on how it could have been avoided—something that a reader will usually find in a book with an apocalyptic vision. This is because, for Anna, there is the persistent hope that she can eventually return to a world that still runs smoothly, one where the familiar laws of nature and economics still operate—the “home” to which she is writing. Like Dorothy in Oz or Alice in Wonderland, she is a temporary visitor to the country of last things, a world not meant to be fixed to a particular time or place—even to something so vague as an apocalyptic future. As strange as this world is, there is a nagging familiarity to it, suggesting that Auster is up to more than simply an end-of-the-world novel. Part of the richness of this excellent book is that it can be read as an allegorical commentary on numerous levels.
The plight of the homeless, gang violence, governments as repressive regimes and purveyors of misinformation, large-scale starvation—these are not simply outlandish visions of the future, but present-day realities. It is as though Anna, like Alice, has gone through the looking glass and seen not the future but the twentieth century itself in a heightened way. The strategies for personal survival that Anna sees around her become ironic commentaries on contemporary society. There is the imaginative suicide of the Runners, who submit to a rigorous discipline of physical training so that on the appointed day they may run in packs at full tilt toward their death. Others, with money, join Euthanasia Clinics, where after a few days or weeks of drug-induced euphoria they can pass out of the world with memories of bliss. There are the starving, who pack their clothes with newspaper to give themselves the appearance of being well fed so that no one will know their shame. There are the Smilers, who believe that everything, from the economy to the weather, would get better if people simply held positive thoughts. The message here is not the nobility and indomitability of the human spirit surviving under difficult conditions; rather, it is a picture of human powerlessness converted into strategies of denial or self-preserving ways out. At one point, Anna must escape from a human slaughterhouse. Again, this is not an outlandish vision of the future; in Nazi Germany human slaughterhouses were a reality. Here Auster is suggesting by what mechanisms the human race...
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