On its surface, In the Country of Last Things is an out-of-character post-apocalyptic novel from the ordinarily contemporary chronicler Paul Auster. That’s how it was lauded to me, in response to my post-apocalyptic novels list, but in fact this story is timeless, without a defined apocalypse. It is more accurately a dystopian novel, and an eerily intangible one at that. Not that the world Auster has created isn’t realistic or easy to grasp – quite the opposite, it’s a substantial and vivid vision – but the nature of the setting and the story give a sense of timeless decay.
In the Country of Last Things takes the form of a letter from Anna Blume to a friend back home, explaining her search for her brother in an unnamed city that has fallen into devastating decline. She has become trapped there, and endured various misadventures such as surviving homeless on the streets and struggling to live with a reclusive madman. Her own story is somewhat incidental to the setting, as made clear by the fact that there are no 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 its effects on the people who live there. Even when Anna’s story takes charge of the narrative, the series of vicious events takes her from one grim demonstrative aspect of the city to another.
Auster depicts his scenes perfectly – it’s a short novel, and the events are discussed with some brevity, but everything that happens is perfectly realised and likely to leave you with lasting images of the haunting setting. Yet for all the vivid detail of his acutely realised vignettes, you never get to understand why this city is in the state it is, and how the people became so trapped. Which is precisely the point – the ultimate realisation 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 isn’t so much a story about a society trying to recover from disaster, 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 is dying 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. If you so choose you could believe it was set in modern times – not a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but a fallen city in a distant land. As I’m sure exist in some corners of the world right now.
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. Which, if nothing else, will give you new sympathy for the homeless. For all this you might think it’s an especially depressing novel, and that reading it’s likely to bring you down, 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. Either way, give it a go.