[(essay date 2010) In the following essay, Peacock compares Auster's In the Country of Last Things with several of his later works.]
In the Country of Last Things was published by Viking Penguin New York in 1987 and the year after in the United Kingdom by Faber and Faber. Yet the author points out that it "is a novel I started writing back in the days when I was a college student. The idea of an unknowable place ... it got under my skin and I couldn't let go of it. ... I must have started the book thirty times" (AH ["Art of Hunger"] 284). So the novel was evolving at the same time Auster was writing his poetry, and the idea of an "unknowable place," a fragmentary landscape both familiar and yet abstract, is something it shares with the verse.
The "unknowable place" is an unnamed, fast-decomposing city to which Anna Blume, the narrator, has traveled across the ocean in search of her missing brother, William. Her narrative takes the form of a diary or extended letter, describing in at times harrowing detail her struggles to survive in a hellish city. The vast majority of people here are reduced to scavenging, and acts of random violence are common. Not unlike the New York of the trilogy, this is a place of disappearances: "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 Yet as the title suggests, it is also a place of persistence, of things that last. At the end of the novel there is a good chance Anna survives. Moreover her letter reaches its destination. The reader knows this from the occasional interjections, such as that found in the very first line: "These are the last things, she wrote" (1). The addressee remains anonymous, but it is clear that it is also intended to be the novel's reader. Thus, despite Anna's observation that "words tend to last a bit longer than things, but eventually they fade too" (89), the book stands as testimony to language's and art's enduring power to create and to move. In engaging with Anna's text, the reader enters into a reciprocal relationship. And, as Auster says, the very act of writing the letter represents Anna's bid "to keep her humanity intact." Writing is an ethical process, and for this reason Auster describes In the Country of Last Things as "the most hopeful book I've ever written. Anna Blume survives, at least to the extent that her words survive. Even in the midst of the most brutal realities, the most terrible social conditions, she struggles to remain a human being" (AH 321). And just as the story describes Anna's attempts to connect with other characters--notably Isabel, Samuel, and Victoria--so the reader's reception is a type of human connection.
While the city portrayed is distinctly dystopian and apocalyptic in...