In a turn of events I’m sure Paul Auster would approve of, I discovered his works by accident. There I was, a blissfully ignorant reader browsing some TC Boyle, when my eye chanced upon something called City of Glass. I picked it up, examined the copy on the back, and concluded that a pleasant little literary mystery would be just the thing to divert my mind. Little did I know what I was getting myself into — one of America’s most celebrated authors, a prolific, imaginative voice that would change the way I looked at fiction.
After charging through the New York Trilogy and Moon Palace, I purchased In the Country of Last Things. At first, it was both a welcome and unwelcome read. Welcome in the sense that after four books I had gotten the hang of Auster’s symbol-swimming metafictions and was glad to see a change of pace. Unwelcome in that it didn’t quite feel up to the rest of the Auster I had read.
I set the book down and came back to it after a week, and, as can happen, it was as though I had picked up a different book than the one I had just read. My expectation for games and conundrums had blinded me to the very meaty narrative that Auster lays out in In the Country of Last Things. It was only after letting the book rest that I saw it for what it is.
The book is about a dystopian future New York City. This future world is characterized by massive unemployment, a Hobbesian lifestyle where swindling, trickery, and malice are practiced wantonly, and a far-off government which routinely undergoes power struggles and offers the people it governs only corruption and greed. Destitution reigns, the weather is shatteringly frigid, and there is no earthly escape.
Much of this dystopia’s framework is similar to other novels of the genre, but Auster ornaments his dystopia with unique touches. For instance, it is common for people of this alternate New York to choose euthanasia over the everyday struggle that they face, and Auster explains the details of complex suicide rites in intriguing, but not disgusting, detail. The members of one suicide group train their bodies for years in preparation for their suicide, in which they run frantically through the streets until, at last, their hearts burst from exertion. There are euthanasia clinics where people, depending on how much they have, check in and purchase increasingly lavish send-offs as a prelude to the final moment when the needle slips in.
Auster places in this world a woman refugee, and the novel consists of a letter she is writing to home, after apparently crossing the Atlantic to come to New York and find her lost brother. As she describes the city and writes of her search, the story unfolds.
As is common in Auster, the first few pages provide thoughts that will grow in significance as the novel progresses:
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. (1-2)
Auster’s city is truly a place of last things, as its inhabitants are slowly chewing through all that is left. There is no production, there are no factories to create new goods; everything anyone has is either scavenged or bartered for from other scavengers. Not only that, but because of the immense destitution the inhabitants live in, nothing lasts very long because someone is always ready to steal it away. In this city, things, like thoughts, are only around so long as you can keep your eye on them.
No sooner has Auster established the lastness of this city than he presents us with a paradox:
The essential thing is not to become inured. For habits are deadly. Even if it is for the hundredth time, you must encounter each thing as if you have never known it before. No matter how many times, it must always be the first time. (7)
So in the city where everything exists for the last time, you must view everything as though for the first time. From the perspective of the city’s inhabitants, every item is both the first and last of its kind. This makes Auster’s future New York into a place of constant upheaval, a place where no one is able to understand what new way of life has superceded the old. It is an impenetrable black void of a world, a place that no one can understand because to understand it requires that you change every day. It is a world dominated by entropy.
Auster’s city is a place from which he can derive strong emotion because the people who populate this city have no choice but to cling to hope in the face of an impossible situation. In essence, hope is the city’s only resource, and everyone must use it.
For example, rain in the city is a big problem. It swoops in without warning and can leave people drenched for hours, their only pieces of clothing wet and even ruined. It is random, strikes without warning, and can only be tolerated. Yet even in the face of this capricious catastrophe, people still cling to hope:
There is a small minority, for example, that believes that bad weather comes from bad thoughts…Their solution is to maintain a steadfast cheerfulness, no matter how dismal the conditions around them�These people are known as the Smilers, and no sect in the city is more innocent or childlike. (26)
The Smilers are an extreme example, but everyone, except the suicides, is like them to a certain degree. Unless they have chosen to commit suicide, everyone in Auster’s city must have a certain amount of hope to propel them through their life. It is the only answer to a city where disorder is the rule.
Ultimately, hope is literally all the protagonist has, and watching her and the friends she makes along the way have their towers built of hope continually demolished by the implacable city is heartbreaking. Although Auster is not as creative with his narrative games in Country of Last Things, this is a far more emotionally affecting novel than are Auster’s more cerebral titles.
All this and we have barely gotten though the book’s first fifth. Auster’s protagonist begins the quest to find her brother, William, at the newspaper he formerly worked at. William was sent out on an assignment across the ocean to New York, but was never heard from again. A second reported was sent after him, and the newspaper editor gives the protagonist a photo of this man, Samuel Farr.
In the city, this photograph soon becomes essential because it is a tangible object that the protagonist can rally her hopes around:
In the end, that photograph made all the difference. I wasn’t even planning to take it with me…When I reached [the city] and saw what had happened to it, I understood that this picture was suddenly the only thing I had left. It was my last link to William. (43)
The protagonist hits the city without money or shelter; in other words, in an extremely perilous position, and the rest of Country of Last Things consists of the protagonist’s experiences in the city as she builds herself out of nothing several times, only to always be demolished. I won’t go into detail, except to say that the protaginist’s experiences are characterized more by loss and setback than by success.
Despite this, the book remains hopeful, right up until the very end. In the country of last things, hope is the only thing that can be renewed. It is the last resource the people have left. Auster’s novel investigates as to whether or not this final resource, like all those before it, can be depleted.
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