15. In the Country of Last Things

by Paul Auster

I liked this novel. It is in the form of the young Anna Blume’s letter home to an old childhood friend. It is an account of Anna’s experiences in a city (probably New York) that has fallen into chaos and destitution. Its inhabitants have depleted nearly all resources, buildings have burned, decayed or been destroyed by pillagers and roving gangs. Many streets are blocked by rubble and the bridges are guarded by a government/police that changes routinely. Stealing is so rampant that it is no longer a crime. There are corpses everywhere, most of which are the result of either starvation or suicide.

The somewhat myopic but compelling view we get is straight from Anna’s memory as she writes to beat death. As she admits, this is a flawed memory under the stress of being in constant survival mode. Anna travels to this mess of a city from a seemingly comfortable life somewhere outside. She does so in search of her journalist brother who disappeared while on assignment for the town’s local newspaper. You might be left wondering what was the state of things in the place she left to go to the city? Well, me too. How was it that the city fell into chaos but everything was okay at home outside the city? In fact Anna’s letter home doesn’t answer many questions, such as: How long ago did the Troubles begin? Were did they begin? What caused it, or was it as gradual as it is these days? Of course answering these questions in satisfactory detail would make this a very different book.

-- I enjoyed her thoughts on scavenging but wished for more detail about the actual scavenging. Well, there were pockets of really great detail – like when she goes to buy shoes from that guy’s cousin, or when she and an equally emaciated friend had to carry a corpse to the roof and throw it off— but overall the book read just like… it was written by someone who struggled to remember the details. Of course she is writing from an extremely faulty memory, as she states repeatedly, and under incredible pressure.

Other thoughts:

-- Why the awkward interjection of third person in the beginning? Is this just a third person omniscient due to an author’s lack of confidence, or does it suggest that her letter/notebook was actually found and transcribed?

--One of the great things (there are many) about the novel: Auster explores sex and sexuality in the post-apocalyptic world. I’ve only read a dozen books of this genre but the absence of this most important part of human life is glaring. I applaud the effort!

-- Once she finally shifts her thinking to the ways of survival it was hard for her to stomach the “service to others” mentality of some friends who help her after she is seriously injured in a fall. There are also a few gems of thought on survival in terms of separating eating and pleasure. Just one example of the psychological effects such a reality.

-- I really like the ending. The hope and trepidation.

This is an excellent little book. I recommend it for those that like the post-apoc genre, and for those who are simply looking for an excellent wordsmith. I’ll definitely read more of his stuff. Any suggestions?

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