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Sunday, 19 August 2012

In the Country of Last Things


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: this then that, and because of that this. – Paul Auster, The Country of Last Things

Where will it all end? It’s an odd expression when you think about it, rather poetic, because it doesn’t ask when or how but where as if the future is an undiscovered country we are all travelling to. Auster describes this place as the country of last things but once you start reading through this book you find yourself wading through an alien world, not simply a country, despite the fact all the action takes place in a single unnamed city, most likely New York. In that respect it might have even made more sense to call the book The City of Last Things but really the city is just an example of what is most probably happening throughout the entire country. From what little we glean it may not be quite so bad in the rest of the world but that looks like only a matter of time.

As in The Road we are faced with a dystopian future without any clear explanation how things got to be this bad. Society still exists after a fashion. The city is governed yet no one stays in power for very long. There are still policemen and soldiers. People have jobs, families and lives. But everything I’ve just mentioned could have “of sorts” tagged on afterwards. People continue going through the motions with less and less at their disposal until there is nothing left but the motions and it’s hard to remember what good these actions ever did. When your every waking moment is devoted to the present there is no time to remember things that aren’t essential to that day’s survival. The book’s narrator, Anna Blume, a girl in her early twenties who has travelled from overseas to this city to look for her missing brother William, at one point is trying to find a way out of her predicament and asks someone about an airplane. He doesn’t understand what an ‘airplane’ is and so she explains that it’s “[a] machine that flies through the air and carries people from one place to another.” The man she asks says there are no such things:

That’s ridiculous, he said, giving me a suspicious kind of look. There’s no such thing. It’s impossible. Don’t you remember? I asked. I don’t know what you’re talking about, he said. You could get into trouble for spreading that kind of nonsense. The government doesn’t like it when people make up stories. It’s bad for morale.

This is only five years after the last film has been shown in a cinema and cars are still to be seen on the street. Aeroplanes are not a part of this man’s world and are never likely to be. Just as the city’s material resources are dwindling so is the intellectual capacity of its citizens:

Entire categories of objects disappear – flowerpots, for example, or cigarette filters, or rubber bands – and for a time you will be able to recognise those words, even if you cannot recall what they mean, But then, little by little, the words become only sounds, a random collection of glottal and fricatives, a storm of whirling phonemes, and finally the whole thing just collapses into gibberish. The word “flowerpot” will make no more sense to you than the word “splandigo”.

The book is written by Anna a few years after she has come to the city on an aid ship (which does suggest that things are better elsewhere). We learn a little about her upbringing and it all sounds quite comfortable; she hasn’t wanted in any way. Considering the amount of time Auster devotes to painting a picture of how things work (or don’t work) in the city it might have been nice to hear a bit of the history – there are certainly enough older people who would remember even farther back than Anna – but we get very little. What we do learn is that even though Anna thought she was prepared to take the city on she really has no idea just what life was going to be like there. This book is her letter to someone from her past – which she fully expects will never reach them since all postal deliveries have now broken down and no ships are being allowed to dock – but she writing it anyway. We know from the opening line that she doesn’t survive but whether the intended recipient, a childhood friend, gets her message is unclear. The book opens with the line:

These are the last things, she wrote.

and at the start of the book at least we get the odd interjection from whoever it is who has acquired her letter but after a while, like everything else, they disappear and all we are left with is a narrative and the hope perhaps that they might reappear at the end and append a few lines telling us what happens to Anna. She may not have died. Simply because she stopped writing doesn’t mean she’s died but it’s hard to conceive any other future for her as you start to work your way through this book. The whole world is dying and most of them before what, under any other circumstances, we would regard as their time.

One of the big problems with science fiction is the need to provide often-detailed descriptions and expositions so that the narration and the author’s arguments can get lost in the mêlée. Writers of historical fiction face similar problems and so, clearly, do writers of future histories. The book abounds with expressions that need to be explained like:

    • Runners
    • Leapers
    • Euthanasia Clinics
      • Return Voyage
      • Journey of Marvels
      • Pleasure Cruise
    • Assassination Clubs
    • Transformation Centres
    • Resurrection Agents
    • Scavengers
      • garbage collectors
      • object hunters
    • Fecalists
    • About the future
      • Smilers
      • Crawlers
        • Dogs
        • Snakes
    • About the weather
      • Drummers
      • End-of-the-Worlders
      • Free Associationists
    • Tollists
    • Vultures

Some are fairly obvious but not all. Although learning about all these groups and organisations is interesting Auster does present most of it by way of what basically amounts to an information dump about forty pages long.

The book itself falls into four distinct sections although there are no discrete chapters, just occasional breaks in the narrative:

  • Alone on the street.
  • With Isabel and Ferdinand, a married couple. Ferdinand has retreated inside himself, never goes out, relies on his wife for everything and spends most of his time building ships inside progressively smaller and smaller bottles
  • With Sam in the library. Sam has abandoned his career as a journalist to write a book chronicling the demise of the city.
  • With Victoria in Woburn House. Following a fall from a window Anna miraculously ends up in a private care facility where she ends up working. The problem is they’re running out of money at an alarming rate.

I’m not going to give you a blow-by-blow account of the book – you can get that from Wikipedia – but I can tell you that this is a character-driven piece of writing, there’s really not much of a plot at all. Anna looks back on what she can remember of her time in the city acknowledging that she’s probably forgotten much (a symptom of life in the city) and apart from a few flashbacks the story progresses in a straightforward linear fashion: she arrives, tries to find William or Sam (the reporter sent after him when William stopped sending reports), realises how futile that is and gets swallowed up with day-to-day existence before fortuitously running into a library where someone has heard of Sam; they eventually get separated, she is injured and ends up in Victoria’s care, realises that she’s not going to be in a position to escape from the city in the foreseeable future and so makes the best of where she’s landed. But nothing lasts forever in the city:

These are the last things…When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted. Close your eyes for a moment, turn around to look at something else, and the thing that was before you is suddenly gone. Nothing lasts, you see, not even the thoughts inside you.

Those who have read Auster’s metafictions might feel a little disappointed by this book. Those who have never read him will probably enjoy the book more but compared to other dystopias like Orwell’s and Huxley’s it falls short. The thing you have to do with this book is not dwell on what it is not – it is not many things – but instead you need to focus on what he provides. That he has the opportunity to do more is obvious – Anna could have provided us with a whole history of the collapse of society gleaned from Sam’s many, many interviews – but that is not what the book is about. It is about her experiences in the now. We might find it interesting to hear how things got to be the way they have but she’s preoccupied with getting through each day’s sufficiency of evils, if I can paraphrase Matthew 6:34.

soylent-greenThere are inevitable similarities to other imagined futures quite simply because many of the things Auster imagines will happen are the kind of things that logically will happen. In Soylent Green, for example, we are introduced to the notion of assisted suicide at a government clinic, a process referred to as "going home" which is very similar to the “Return Voyage” Auster proposes; the “Journey of Marvels” and the “Pleasure Cruise” are simply alternatives for those who can afford them. There are issues Auster doesn’t explore like drugs or disease. Most things only get brief mentions, in fact, like the various governments that have come and gone. But what he does talk about is quite riveting. Like the subject of food:

Often you will overhear a group of people describing a meal in meticulous detail, beginning with the soups and appetisers and slowly working their way to dessert, dwelling on each savour and spice, on all the various aromas and flavours, concentrating now on the method of preparation, now on the effect of the food itself, from the first twinge of taste on the tongue to the gradually expanding sense of peace as the food travels down the throat and arrives in the belly. These conversations go on for hours, and they have a highly rigorous protocol. You must never laugh, for example, and you must never allow your hunger to get the better of you. No outbursts, no unpremeditated sighs. That would lead to tears, and nothing spoils a food conversation more quickly than tears. … There are even those who say there is nutritional value in these food talks – given the proper concentration and an equal desire to believe in the words among those taking part.

It’s positively medieval but it’s still a modern city, there are still cars, albeit cars powered by methane rather than petrol. That’s where the Fecalists come in. Needless to say there is no sanitation as we know it: “[p]ipes have corroded, toilets have cracked and sprung leaks, the sewer system is largely defunct.” But this is a future we all have to look forward to, a world where everything that can be recycled is, including human bodily waste:

Shit and garbage have become crucial resources here … Each census zone has its own power plant, and these run entirely on waste. … Shit is a serious business here, and anyone caught dumping it in the streets is arrested. With your second offense, you are automatically given the death penalty.

The same goes for dead bodies. It is even a crime to bury the dead. Towards the end of the book Victoria breaks this law and it’s not long before someone complains to the authorities. When a member of the Central Constabulary arrives to investigate this is what he has to say to her:

This is most irregular … The selfishness of burial in this day and age – imagine the gall of it. Without bodies to burn, we’d go under fast, that’s for sure, the whole lot of us would be sunk. Where would our fuel come from, how would we keep ourselves alive? In this time of national emergency, we must all be vigilant. No one body can be spared, and those who take it upon themselves to subvert this law must not be allowed to go free. They are evildoers of the worst sort, perfidious malefactors, renegade scum. They must be rooted out and punished.

Strong, clearly heartfelt words, but not so heartfelt that the man cannot be bribed; a handful of “glots”, the currency of the day, buys his silence. Victoria evades incarceration but the corpse does not escape incineration.

THX1138This is an awful book. It describes an awful world. How could it be anything other than awful? And yet it manages to be. If there is one thing that dystopian fictions have in common it’s a hero, someone who tries to rise above even if they can’t escape from the squalor or oppressiveness that they find themselves being sucked into: Winston Smith, Montag, THX 1138, V, John the Savage – in In the Country of Last Things we have Anna who keeps getting up no matter what the city throws at her. This is what my fellow Scot, Steffan Hamilton had to say about her:

Part of what makes Anna the remarkable heroine that she is, is her continuing ability to love, in a city where it is an achievement to retain even the determination to live. Whether it is sexual love – for a man or a woman – or sisterly love, her propensity for passion under such duress is a testament not just to her own character but to humanity as a whole. It is perhaps this undying heart, more than circumstance, that enables Anna to become pregnant, a happening otherwise unheard of in the city. This wholeness of being, along with that of others … is vital to the underlying feeling of hope that is pervasive throughout. Readers of holocaust biography might be reminded of the great love and stoicism that writers like Primo Levi impart.

Without Anna this book would have ended up swallowing itself in its own awfulness. If I was to compare the book to anything I’d probably go with The Children of Men rather than the predictable ‘Orwellian’ – as one reviewer put it, “ALL dystopias are Orwellian.” What we have here is utterly believable. He could have done the same as Dmitrii Bykov in Living Souls and turn his projected future into a sprawling epic but all credit to him for trimming the fat. Much as I would have liked to know more – there’s always more to know – he tells us enough, more than enough really, to enable us to envisage the kind of society Anna has become lost in:

In spite of what you would suppose, the facts are not reversible. Just because you are able to get in, that does not mean you will be able to get out. Entrances do not become exits, and there is nothing to guarantee that the door you walked through a moment ago will still be there when you turn around to look for it again. That is how it works in the city. Every time you think you know the answer to a question, you discover that the question makes no sense.

I read though a great many of the reviews on Goodreads, as I did with The Road, and I found the opinions weren’t quite as polarised as with that book; The Road really does seem to be a love-it-or-loathe-it kind of a book. With this book a lot of the time people were unhappy because it wasn’t what they expected from Auster – “Every time I read another book by Paul Auster, I'm always disappointed when it's not as good as City of Glass,” says Mary.

But why “the Country of Last Things” and not ‘lost’? The `Last Things' of the book's title reference the `Four Last Things' of Catholic theology – death, judgement, Hell and Heaven so is this an eschatological fantasy in a dystopian setting? For me an Amazon reviewer, Paul Bowes (the only one to give the book 2-stars), hits the nail on the head:

It seems easiest to understand In the Country of Last Things as a meditation on the role of memory and language in the creation and maintenance of human identity, but the philosophical themes are not sustained: for long periods Auster seems to forget about the 'last things', and Anna's observations on time and memory are banal.

I think ‘banal’ is a little harsh myself but I do think Auster loses his way a little. He starts off writing one kind of a novel but once the story takes over, once Anna starts interacting with other people and doesn’t spend so much time in her own head, Auster’s arguments are subverted by the needs of the book’s narrative.

The bottom line is I liked it. I’m a great fan of dystopian fiction and I think Auster holds his end up well. No, it is not a perfect book and I very much doubt that when the book is turned into a film (it’s currently in production) that will help because all the interesting stuff – to me at least – will probably end up being ditched in favour of action. I will still be keen to see this world come to life on the screen. The really big question is what they’ll decide to do with the ending. Will they tag on a happy ending or leave things the way Auster does? That is a concern. That said Auster has written the script so he’ll have no one to blame but himself.


Ken Armstrong said...

I've only ever read Auster's 'New York Trilogy'. I liked each of them very much. Enough narrative to keep that part of me satisfied and enough downright oddness to keep them embedded in my head. My favorite was the middle one 'Ghosts'.

He's certainly someone I would like to read more of.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think I bought the New York Trilogy after you made a comment about it before—probably in my last Auster review—and I will get round to it. I’m also a little curious to check out some of his wife’s stuff too. So many books, so little time. I’m reading a 550-page book I got sent to review at the moment and can’t even keep the title in my head. The last chapter I’ve read is five pages long and four of them could have been summed up with the sentence, “He nearly missed her.” I’ve seen Auster accused of overwriting too. Hard to imagine but I suppose everything could be said in a few words less if we put our mind to it.

martine said...

Thanks for the review. I enjoy dystopian fiction, and loved The Road (if love is a good word to apply to such a book) and have never read any Auster so am not to be making comparisons. might just give this one a try.

Jim Murdoch said...

I reviewed The Road back in 2010, Martine. I liked it—both the book and the film adaptation (which I also talk about)—but I know others who didn’t. I see at the moment that a lot of people are writing dystopian novels. I actually wonder what fresh they might have to say. I’ve thought several times of working on one—I love science fiction although I’ve have never been able to write the stuff—but every idea I get is derivative. And, of course, the more books get written the fewer and fewer the options are to produce something truly original. That serious writers are interested in the subject pleases me. The future is a subject that deserves serious consideration.

I wrote this review a while ago and never got round to posting it but I checked to see how the film was doing. The last I could see it had a production date of 2011 on it but nothing on IMDB. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime if you can find a copy this is well worth a read.

Brent Robison said...

Hi Jim,
I enjoyed this review. I like the coincidence that just yesterday I finished reading a long and rather academic essay about In the Country of Last Things, in an anthology of essays about Auster's work called Beyond the Red Notebook. As I may have told you, I'm sort of a hardcore Auster fan, and while this is not my favorite of his books, I like it a lot. The things you find to be weaknesses I consider strengths, because they move the story into the realm that Auster rules in, a metafictional world where the stories do not follow conventional rules of realism or even of storytelling, but for that very reason, for me, are more "true" -- they speak of invisible forces, question the meanings of language and authorship, and challenge the very nature of reality. Yet they don't step into any sort of Fantasy or SF genre either. Fans of typical dystopian fiction may be disappointed in this book just as fans of conventional detective fiction may have been disappointed in the New York Trilogy. His concerns are not those of standard genre fiction, but are more philosophical: the Question is more important than the Answer. (I explored the Trilogy on my blog a couple of posts back if you want to see my take on it.)

I look forward to the film version of In the Country of Last Things but I suspect it will fall short in the same way the film of his novel The Music of Chance did... not quite strange enough, too literal, and a forced happy ending. We'll see...

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I read the New York Trilogy after a friend recommended it highly. It didn't quite work for me.

The same friend dragged me to a reading Auster gave for what was then his newest book, Timbuktu, the protagonist of which is a dog. The excerpts he read were even less my speed than the NYT.

I haven't written him off completely. I rather liked the movie, Smoke, for which Auster wrote the screeplay.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m not really sure the things I mention in my review, Brett, are weaknesses—I certainly don’t use the word—but they are points to note because this is not your typical dystopia. As I say in the review: “The thing you have to do with this book is not dwell on what it is not – it is not many things – but instead you need to focus on what he provides” I don’t think that is a bad thing but there will be those who do. The book I’m reading just now is 550 pages long and, as far as I’m concerned, terribly overwritten. As I mentioned to Ken above there is one chapter five pages long and four of them could have been summed up with the sentence, “He nearly missed her” instead of giving us a blow-by-blow account of how the protagonist travelled from his flat to the station. There is a lot that Auster misses out but that’s why we have imaginations and I appreciate authors who allow me to use mine. This book certainly hasn’t put me off Auster and it may be if I ever found the time to reread it which I know is unlikely I’d get more out of it. You can’t blame a guy for being disappointed that an author takes a book in a direction you might not have personally; that’s why we write our own.

And, Glenn, I did not know that Auster wrote Smoke. I’ve never seen it but I knew of it. Now I’m keen to. I wouldn’t worry too much if Auster doesn’t do it for you. It’s not as if we’re short of books to read. I’ll continue to read and review him so maybe in a few years’ time I’ll talk about something that does pique your interest. One man’s meat and all that…

Brent Robison said...

Yes, Auster wrote Smoke, which was directed by Wayne Wang (Blue in the Face also). Wang also directed Center of the World, screenplay by Auster and his wife Siri Hustvedt (only watch it if you enjoy pushing sexual boundaries). Auster wrote and directed Lulu on the Bridge. I liked all these, but HATED his other movie The Inner Life of Martin Frost.

Jim, you mentioned wanting to read something by his wife. I highly recommend two of her recent novels, Sorrows of an American and What I Loved. And her very first novel, The Blindfold, is one of my all-time favorite books. Her essays are excellent too.

Jim Murdoch said...

I found a copy of Smoke, Brent. Carrie’s off to the States next week so since my regular viewing schedule will go out of the window I’ll watch it then. It’s been on TV several times and I’ve kept meaning to tape it. I’ve seen clips though. Thanks for the advice on Hustvedt. I’ve just had a look at her books on Amazon. The star ratings are all over the place. I don’t see that as bad thing though. Most interesting writers polarise opinions. Auster certainly does. Of the two books you mention The Blindfold is the one that calls out to me the most.

Art Durkee said...

The reason so many "literay" writers have dipped into dystopian fiction is that the zeitgeist is hooked on apocalypse porn. Movies, too. I predicted this Millenial Fevre bak in the 70s, and that it would probably last another ten years from now. Current ultra onservaive political retrenchment are also part of tis.

Margaret Atwood was ahead of all these other dystopian literary novelists, and hers still read better than most of theirs. And of course SF was even further ahead, with all the nuclear scare novels of the 50s. Including Ray Bradbury.

So when I see books like this lauded elsewhere as fresh or original, I just laugh. It's already third or fourth generation apocalypse porn by now. I wish more of it was more interesting reading than it actually turns out yo be.

Jim Murdoch said...

I wonder, Art, if this was a love story rather than a dystopian novel you’d be equally upset; they’ve been done to death too. I don’t think that many literary novelists are jumping on the bandwagon here; I can certainly only thing of a handful. I personally like to see serious writers tackling science fiction because it gives it a level of respect it has long deserved but failed to get because of how it was marketed. Auster’s book is only “fresh and original” because it’s written in his voice. The actually storyline is really not that exciting and the book is far from perfect but it is interesting. If it ever does make it to the screen I’d rather hope that someone else wrote the screenplay and polished it up a bit. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a fine novel but Blade Runner is a better film. Had Dick’s book been filmed faithfully I’m not sure it would have lasted as well as Blade Runner has. IMHO.

Art Durkee said...

Hardly upset, that's too strong a word. More mockery at the follies of the ignorant. It is merely that when the mainstream literary culture discover a new thing, they show their ignorance. It's especially ironic when they steal ideas from genres that they spend the rest of their time dismissing or putting down. LOL. So, yeah, mockery.

Dave King said...

I'm tempted with this one. But then, I keep being tempted by Auster, but I have only read Leviathan. I really thought, reading your review, that this was going to be the dystopian view without a hero. I tend to think the hero makes it too much of a fairy tale. Great review, which I very much enjoyed reading. Not sure if I'll go for the book, though.

Jim Murdoch said...

There are better dystopian novels out there, Dave. If you’re a fan of Auster and are curious to see how he handles the material then read the book. It’s like Billy Joel’s “classical” album Opus 1-10: Fantasies & Delusions: Music For Solo Piano. If you’re a fan and want to see how he does then fine but really you’d be better served with some Telemann or Scarlatti. As far as a book without a hero goes I have to say that’s a hard thing to imagine because even in ensemble pieces one character tends to rise to the fore. It may not be the same person for everyone but I do think everyone picks their own hero or at least someone they identify with. I’m not a big fan of heroes. All my books have protagonists but there’s nothing especially heroic about any of them.

Nives said...

Importance of a comma!! The first line of the book is not "these are the last things she wrote" but "these are the last things, she wrote".... I believe this makes a huge difference in the interpretation.

Jim Murdoch said...

Ah, Nives, it doesn’t matter how often you proofread a text something always slips through. Fixed, and thank you.

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