Dystopian fiction, ranging from George Orwell’s classic 1984 to the modern day phenomenon of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, typically conjures up images of oppressive regimes subverting the spirit of the common people in pursuit of some greater, yet ultimately insidious purpose. A meager resistance force struggles to overthrow this regime and restore peace, freedom, and love to these rigid, heartless worlds. Sometimes the resistance gets to wear fashionable neoprene bodysuits in wildly successful movie franchises. Sometimes things are much bleaker, and monochrome natural fibers dominate the wardrobes. Either way, there is a certain comfort that we as readers derive from watching the little guys and/or gals shake their fists at the impossibly powerful, well-organized governments dominating their lives, regardless of whether or not they succeed.
Paul Auster’s slim 1987 novel, In the Country of Last Things, evokes these universal themes of dystopian fiction on a much more intimate scale, and in a uniquely unsettling environment. The novel unfurls as a single, monumental letter from its protagonist, Anna Blume, to an unknown, unnamed recipient back in her home country. The letter details Anna’s journey to a mysterious, barren city known simply as “the city,” in pursuit of her journalist brother who went missing there on assignment several months before. Unlike Winston Smith’s Oceania, or Katniss’s Districts, there is precious little sense of stability or authority in the city. Life in the city is utterly chaotic, eked out scrap by scrap at the margins of what we would recognize as civilized society. The streets are littered with rubble, corpses and refuse. Scavengers—the city’s most prevalent “workers”—scour the streets with shopping carts tied to their waists by improvised “umbilical cords” to keep bandits from stealing the fruits of their day’s labors. Resources are so scarce that burial of corpses is a crime; the main function of the government is the collection and recycling of bodies for fuel. Those who tire of struggling for survival simply collapse in the street. More determined individuals can join one of many death cults like the Runners, who combine relentless training with stark asceticism to prepare for a final, ecstatic day in which they run through the city until their hearts collapse.
It isn’t long before Anna’s need to survive in the city disrupts her quest to find her brother. Anna struggles to make a living until one day, she rescues a fellow scavenger named Isabel from being trampled by a gang of the Runners. Isabel is overwhelmed with gratitude for this rare act of selflessness and takes Anna to live with her and her unhinged, overbearing husband, Ferdinand, in their meager apartment. The three form a motley, if unstable life together, and Anna begins to understand the degree of mettle it takes to survive in the city. As Anna’s letter home progresses, the reader begins to understand how a perverse form of order and society develops in this chaotic world. There are still libraries and real estate offices, markets and hospitals, though their functions have been warped by the city’s corrupting influence, almost beyond the point of recognition.
In the Country of Last Things is an ethereal, haunting novel. Auster’s prose infuses Anna’s journey with a sense of quiet awe that transforms the grimy minutiae of life into fresh, almost mystical experiences. Despite the surfeit of suffering, In the Country of Last Things offers the reader a quiet hope for humanity. The novel delves into the human will to persist against impossible odds without shying away from the unsettling lengths that this effort would require. Auster is famous his existential probing and refusal to offer up clean answers to big, messy questions. While In the Country of Last Things certainly shares these qualities, the pairing of Auster’s masterful prose with a distinctive and rich setting creates a tale that is satisfying in itself and, unlike so much in the city, refuses to be forgotten.