Auster, Paul (1987), In the Country of Last Things, Faber & Faber
Post-apocalyptic novels have know quite a success this past decade. Most recently, there was Theroux’ so-so Far North, Cormac McCarthy’s ok The Road and Maggie Gee’s brilliant The Flood, as well as Margaret Atwood’s efforts Oryx & Crake and this year’s The Year of the Flood. Although Paul Auster’s fourth (or second, depending on whether you count the New York Trilogy as one or three novels) novel In The Country of Last Things, was published in 1987, I could not help but to contextualize it with its more recent brethren and draw a comparison with these books, an undertaking that isn’t likely to produce a result that shines a favorable light on Auster’s book. In 1987, with some of his most famous books still to come, like Moon Palace or The Music of Chance, he’d already published the one book (or books) that will secure him a place in the American canon, The New York Trilogy. It consists of three short pieces, variations on a variety of themes, an unease with reality, with names, naming, being, identity. Although I’m not sure it’s a success, it’s definitely a powerful artistic statement, this is a man stepping out into the world and stating his intentions as a writer, it’s the one text in Paul Auster’s work that works like a key to his whole oeuvre. It may not be fully artistically accomplished but we as readers are left with Auster’s shadow in the door, his wild gaze. Hier stehe ich und kann nicht anders. You may not like the book, but it’s also the one point in Paul Auster’s whole work where you can feel a kind of authenticity, a hunger, a need and a talent to write. It’s all there and we as readers can’t but admire the result. But sadly, Auster didn’t stop after finishing the trilogy.
In the Country of Last Things is, in many ways, a huge step forward, or away, from the writing that created the New York Trilogy. It is a bleak, post-apocalyptic novel about a woman called Anna Blume, who is in search of her brother William. In order to find him, she enters a dilapidated city where hunger and horror reign. Quickly she learns that finding her brother in the mess of that city would be difficult at best. The city, cut off from the rest of the country by a barrier that Anna soon learns is meant to keep people in, not to keep people out, is a total waste land. As in all the rest of his work, Auster is profoundly uninterested in depicting the place in a full-bodied way, but he does something interesting, he defines it through the actions that you have to undertake in order to stay alive there and through the book’s central metaphor: hunger. Mainly, there are two important ways to earn your keep in this merciless country, both involve scavenging. You can either hunt for anything, these are the so-called “Garbage collectors”, who purchase a license in order to roam a certain area on the lookout for anything resembling garbage that can be sold off; and there are also the ”object hunters”, who are specifically out to hunt rare, more valuable objects. These two occupations demand different kinds of skills, but the basic way you go about them, with a cart that you keep leashed to your waist, stays the same. In a way it’s impressive how nakedly and quickly Auster mounts his construct here.
The genre he sets this book in can be considered Science Fiction, an attribution that has been often contested, most recently in the spats between Ursula K. LeGuin and Margaret Atwood about the question whether it is viable or even useful to call some of Atwood’s work SF. But Auster’s book, in contrast to most of the recent post-apocalyptic explorations I mentioned earlier, shares some interesting properties with the SF genre that go beyond questions of technology and believability: Auster writes badly. This is not to say that SF is badly written in general, but even among the classics of SF you would be hard-pressed to find finely crafted prose or exquisitely drawn characters. This is offset, in SF, by the enormous amount of ideas that crowd even mediocre works of the genre. For various reasons, writing SF enables writers to present a plethora of daring and interesting ideas that your common, booker-shortlisted book would take hundreds of pages to develop and then present in a careful, often veiled fashion. SF often don’t bother with all the hoopla that’s expected of the mild-mannered contemporary novel. Writers such as Tobias S. Buckell, Nebula Award Finalist in 2007, in novels like Ragamuffin, can produce solidly written yarns that crawl with concerns from freedom to identity and perception. Idea-driven literature like satire quite often forswear complex characters and careful writing in order to deliver a punch. Tova Reich’s cartoonishly garish (but amazingly brilliant & bitter) My Holocaust is perhaps the best recent example of this genre, but Maggie Gee’s aforementioned The Flood is also a very fine specimen. Examples of this writing can be found all through literary history. One of the most fascinating examples of this is perhaps John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a novelization of the progress of the spirit, which is less concerned with providing a gripping and credible story than with putting its everyman hero in a series of situation that are significant in terms of the spiritual lessons Bunyan wants to impart on his readers.
It is interesting, in this context, that In the Country of Last Things has an epitaph from Hawthorne’s story “The Celestial Railroad”, a modernized take on Bunyan’s tale. It is this tradition that Auster writes in, and his cold oeuvre can be read as an effort to be both a schoolmaster as well as a storyteller, but he often ends up just being a drag (incidentally, the protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s novel of poetics and poets, The Anthologist, seems eerily like Paul Auster). There are many similarities and dissimilarities to Bunyan’s line in In the Country of Last Things; of the latter, I think that Auster’s reversion of Bunyan’s thrust figures most strongly. Whereas Bunyan’s Christian leaves the “famous City of Destruction” (to quote the epitaph) to get to the Celestial City, Auster’s Anna Blume travels to a city of destruction. While Bunyan finds a series of images for a spiritual journey that everyone could be argued to be on, Auster found images for the violence, the hunger that is part of our everyday lives. Auster inserts those cleverly into situations that sound and look as if they had been transported straight from our time to that dire place, which makes for an uncanny effect. Auster’s embracing of the Bunyan line allows him to make his case and present his ideas simply and directly. There isn’t a shortage of ideas in In the Country of Last Things: in the book we have, for example, a discussion pitting ‘need’ against ‘consumerism’. If I may take up the concept of garbage collectors and object hunters I mentioned earlier: as people start to rethink what to throw away (which in turn hurts the garbage collectors), we see how use, or the lack of it, can change something into garbage. Dead people’s clothes, for example, quickly, unclaimed, unworn, become garbage.
The object collectors seem to be based on a school of thought which is clearly meant to echo (and does), classic works of sociology such as Jean Baudrillard’s highly readable Le Système des objets. How we read objects, how we construct and make use of our interiors, of the objects that make up our lives, how we experience the quotidian, this is a recurring theme in Paul Auster’s novel and he uses the brash surface of the city to shine a light on that which we recognize to be ours, to belong to our world, not just objects, but also behaviors, structures, people. The whole book is made up of small pieces, of these kinds of, well, narrative objects which can pop up sudden in the book, but for the reader, each of them is like a small, dense island of reference. Just as Bunyan, Auster ushers his heroine from one densely symbolical situation to the next, each imparting one important point that contributes towards Auster’s larger image of how close that city of literal destruction is to our metaphoric, Bunyanian City of Destruction. For example, there is a small apartment where two people live, leading a dysfunctional marriage. Auster goes out of his way to make this, although an exaggeration, a thoroughly clichéd depiction of a typical bourgeois marital household. The violence that imbues it is chilling, especially if we connect it to the general violence in the town and recognize one as being related to the other. The chill is generated through the recognition that the household could have been part of the reader’s own world, it seems transplanted to the criminal city in order to highlight connections. The details that power this recognition are all there, from the objects, to the behavior (hobbies, for example), it’s enough to build and keep a strong connection to the reader’s present.
These connections make us realize how close we may be to what happened in Auster’s unnamed country, or how we may move in that direction, but only at a first glance. In fact, reading, appreciating and understanding the first of many of these set pieces, will, for most readers, be the point where they’ll realize for the first time in the book with striking and absolute clarity, that Auster is profoundly non-committal. Hunger, a violent social force in the book, makes people less political, In the Country of Last Things claims and the whole conception of the book tries to support the point. Less political? The book could be read as an attempt to highlight the pervasiveness of politics, the fact that anything we do is politically fraught and subject to violence and fear. But Auster balks from that kind of conclusion and by cutting off the city from the main country, Auster has also bracketed off politics, or so he tries to convince his readers in the book. The intent is clear, this is about individual lives only, but in doing this, he has done his constructions, his ideas a disservice, as he’s done his source texts like the one by Baudrillard, which are highly, highly political. It’s disturbing to see him bottle all this violence and redirect the flow into less significant channels. Auster has, in his books, brought up hunger a few times, most famously probably in the book of his that I enjoyed the most, Hand to Mouth, a gloriously self-aggrandizing memoir of his early years. Hand to Mouth is swimming in righteousness and self-pity, but hunger as a need to write and the actual hunger that resulted from his lack of success, this was a combination that made for a good read. In In the Country of Last Things, his point is actually a similar one, equating actual hunger, and an actual search with an intellectual hunger and a quest for meaning in a desolated city.
Instead of reading the hurt and the need as something that exists between human beings, he chooses a radically individualist, solipsist, almost, path. In this he is both similar and radically dissimilar to Bunyan. Words, Auster tells us early on, can sustain us, if we give ourselves over to them with a strong enough belief, a deep enough dedication. Failure may lurk, and all communities that surface in the book are doomed to perish, and most, indeed, do, but one person and her writing can save herself and, in the writing, maybe, everybody else with her. A writer’s progress, we might quip. This is how the book is set up, with regard to narrator and structure. The book seems to be a letter from Anna Blume to her brother, but it isn’t completely given over to the epistolary genre. Like the Brooklyn Follies, but more explicitly, In the Country of Last Things is framed by an unnamed narrator, who narrates the writing of the letter. The book, in a way, contains the letter and thus, to a degree, also its ideas. This makes for a lot of distance, and presents yet another instance of Auster disavowing his own characters, but it also serves as a cradle of sorts for Anna Blume’s letter, which doesn’t fall into a black hole of unknowing. Who will read the letter? Will anyone? These questions are not foregrounded, although the last chapters of the book act out that kind of gesture. The narrative bracket, or cradle, cushions this, however, making the gesture visible, as a gesture, and not allowing it to affect the careful reader. This is a book written in the 1980s, in a century where we have seen many letters and diaries written into the void of the Shoah, the Gulag and similar catastrophes, with no hope or thought of future readers. Millions and millions of people had been murdered by totalitarian regimes and sent to their deaths by democracies not without trying to write down what they felt needed to be said. There was a sudden, unusual rupture between the writing and the reading (part of this, I think is what Shoshana Felman nicely described as “the crisis of witnessing” in her marvelous book Testimony) But in the 1980s we already knew these texts, we’ve read them, footnoted and edited them, we contextualized the gap that opened up at their end.
Of all the destructive events that caused these ruptures, the Shoah is probably central. And in all the disrupted narratives connected to the Shoah, Anna’s namesake, Anne Frank, surely figures among the most well know writers. The book itself suggests this connection, by including yet another piece, another object, this time about a Jewish community in a large library. Many people live in this library, which is an interesting microcosm, and yet another location created in the spirit of Bunyan. As we meet them, Jews are only tolerated there, and later in the book, we’ll see them deported, thrown out into the cold and bitter city. Anna Blume is herself a Jew and carries in her name both literary echoes (her name is pronounced ‘Bloom’, like Leonard) and dire forebodings (“gloom, tomb”, the narrator jests). Their expulsion, her identity and the general context of the book are thickly interlaced. The event of the city’s destruction, it’s ongoing process of coming even more undone, Auster connects it to the hate of Jews that is recurrent in Western civilization. His Jews are caricatures but it isn’t Theroux’ brand of racism (see my review of his book here), it’s still the satiric, Science-fictional impulse to quickly, succinctly present ideas and themes. All through the book, Auster is remarkably constant in this, but it’s always clear that he sees himself more in the line of Bunyan and Hawthorne than in SF’s tradition.
In Auster’s case, the sad fact is that his abilities cannot keep up with his ambitions. A writer like Buckell or PK Dick may not be a great stylist, not a superior crafter of prose, but these writers often work with their limitations, writing a simple, very readable style that often eschews literary flourishes for sappier phrases that, however, do deliver. Buckell may not have a wonderful sound, but he doesn’t sound awkward either. If there is one word that perfectly describes Auster’s prose, however, it’s ‘awkward’. Auster, who astonishingly started out as a poet, labors to create literary prose but his tin ear and willingness to accept cliché turns of phrase make for pages that drag on and on. He shines, now and then, but every dog has its day and I guess Auster deserves it for trying so hard. Also, much more damningly, his espousing of Bunyan/Hawthorne exposes his weak thinking and his prejudice. Ideas, in SF have become gestures, almost, and to question identity has become de rigeur, which makes SF much more predictable, but at the same time elevates even weak thinkers to a decent level if they keep to genre conventions. The SF subtext is so strong that even writers or thinkers with questionable convictions can compose books and texts that are much saner, much more in line with thoughtful and laudable concepts. Since Auster’ll have none of this, he bares himself in a way that can be worrisome.
Of the prejudices mentioned, I’ll pick just one (I mentioned others in my review of Invisible, here) which surfaces in his choice of protagonist. Now, a strong woman is a wonderful heroine in any novel, but Auster’s focus on ideas instead of characters highlights the fact that he chose Anna Blume because she is a woman, because of the weaknesses and fads, because of things like that which he could hang on her. In a really astonishingly reactionary way, he underlines difference, as the most central fact about her. The above-mentioned connections to the everyday run on a rail that is composed of a very strict sense of gender roles. He never questions it, in fact, he needs and exploits the difference between the roles and undercuts every single instance that could be read as emancipatory. Anna writes a book but it is TO her brother and contained IN a narrative that seems to be ‘the author’s’ (at least we have no better indication). A strong woman who leads a charitable home needs to be saved by men and Anna Blume just stands by and watches events unfold. Feminity is almost a defect, it’s a weakness that exposes her to male violence (but she isn’t helpless). The survivalist tone of the city highlights Auster’s misconceptions about so-called basic differences between genders. Auster uses Anna Blume as a woman, but at no point does he actually display any concern for her situation as a woman, in her culture and in this new non-culture. Almost maliciously, the book mentions at one point that a depletion of razor stocks meant that Anna and her lover needed to decide whether his beard or her legs would get shaved, and quips humorously “the legs won, hands down.” This low, old-boy’s club kind of humor is all over the book, unchecked, unreflected, strong.
Earlier, I talked about hunger as being one of the most important, even the central trope of the book. I realize I haven’t cited much evidence for this, but I’d like to briefly return to it. See, with Auster there is real hunger and intellectual hunger and while his disdain for the former smacks of a strange kind of normative thinking, the two sides of the idea of hunger have been presented before and Auster does do his own presenting cogently and engagingly, even in this book. But mentioning Hawthorne and Bunyan calls attention to a third kind of hunger, one which stays with you all through the book: spiritual hunger. I find Auster’s lack of commitments, of investment in some of the ideas he throws around exhausting, because there is nothing, ultimately, that will sustain the reader, not even Auster’s belief in words manifests itself in gorgeous prose. No, for me, it’s too draining to read writers like Auster, who ask much of their readers, but give little back. Their texts are laced with the gestures of literariness, but are executed with a willful disdain for the medium they write in or its possibilities. They write from a well established vantage point, and use materials and provisions of others without, I think, paying back in commitment and strength. Paul Auster’s novels are like black holes, and they should be read fleetingly, glancing, without looking overmuch at their details and implications. It is, I think, thus that they can be best enjoyed, as a vaguely competent romp. A friend of mine scoffed at my reading of the Brooklyn Follies, claiming it to be a warm, funny novel, her reading clearly a cursory one, and thus, fitting for a reading of an Auster book, Auster being similarly cursory with his own readings and engagements. As that book, In the Country of Last Things will make a great movie, I think, if the images can be made to carry some of the weight, and transform the literary pretensions into genuine storytelling. It’s good to see Auster doing more movies this past decade. Auster is a screenwriter manqué, and I would have much rather seen the movie than read the book.
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