As dystopian novels go, In the Country of Last Things is about as apocalyptic as they come. Somewhat out of character for contemporary chronicler Paul Auster, it is the story of a society that has fallen apart, and the people who continue to inhabit it, struggling to do nothing more than survive. The world Auster has created is a substantial and vivid vision – while the nature of the setting and the story give a sense of timeless decay.
What it’s all about
In the Country of Last Things takes the form of a letter from Anna Blume to a friend back home, following her moving to an unnamed city that has fallen into devastating decline. She has become trapped there whilst looking for her brother, enduring various misadventures such as surviving homelessness and struggling to live with a reclusive madman. For the large part, her story is incidental to the setting: there are no real details about her actions until almost a quarter of the way into the book. The opening is instead a series of sharply creative anecdotal vignettes about this horrific city and the horrors endured by the people who live there. When Anna’s story finally does take charge of the narrative, the vicious events merely take her from one grim demonstrative aspect of the city to another.
Why read In the Country of Last Things
Auster depicts his scenes perfectly – it’s a short novel, but no matter its brevity all the details will leave you with lasting images of the haunting setting. Yet for all the detail of these acutely realised vignettes, there’s no lasting purpose behind why this city is in the state it is, and how the people became so trapped. Which is precisely the point – the ultimate realisation this novel aspires to is that the people living there have slipped into a gradual desolation, which eats away at the human spirit and all that goes with it. It’s a story about a gradual and inevitable decline, one which not only destroys lives but destroys the very memory of what life once was. The past loses its meaning, because memory dies along with everything else.
It’s a brilliant, despairing account, and one whose timeless nature makes it feel all the more real, and even current. It’s equally believable as a modern dystopia or a post-apocalyptic wasteland, wherever this fallen city lies.
Like all Auster’s work, the characters, their actions and the settings they inhabit are so carefully chosen that every page of In the Country of Last Things will stick with you. It’ll make you feel like you’ve lived in the city yourself. For all this you might think it’s an especially depressing novel, but Anna’s persevering attitude gives some respite from the misery of it all. If you’re familiar with Auster’s generally morose style, you’ll know what to expect.