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:
- Euthanasia Clinics
- Return Voyage
- Journey of Marvels
- Pleasure Cruise
- Assassination Clubs
- Transformation Centres
- Resurrection Agents
- garbage collectors
- object hunters
- About the future
- About the weather
- Free Associationists
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.
There 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.
This 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.