[(essay date Spring 1994) In the following essay, Washburn examines the imagery, literary and historical allusions, and narrative design employed by Auster to portray the deterioration of civilization In the Country of Last Things.]
Transparent, straightforward as speech, and almost entirely innocent of the formal conundrums and cross-referenced allusions for which his New York Trilogy is noted, Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things would appear at first glance to take a sharp turn in a new literary direction. Auster's novel, like the long visionary epistle that ends Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City, is written in the shape of a document cast into the void, mailed to some sort of dead letter zone at the end of the world. This, too, is a fictional account of an apocalypse, but where Lessing's Martha Quest is prolix, doctrinaire, and relentlessly literal, the voice of Anna Blume maintains through 182 pages the discipline of a rare sanity contemplating extreme derangement, observing, reporting, and never escaping into the ease of the oracular or the comfort of the grand historical explanation.
A young woman has sailed across the ocean, leaving one continent, where civilization is evidently still intact, for another in a terminal stage of collapse and ruin. Although the text makes no such proposal, we are tempted to substitute the maps of first Europe, then America to chart her voyage. In search of her missing brother, William, Anna discovers she will require all her wits to survive in the rubble of a city governed by assassins, profiteers, and thugs. Years later she writes in a blue notebook of the failure of her quest and describes the history of her wanderings to an unnamed person, some old lover, old friend, or even her former self, still safe in the civility and reason of an older order on the other side of the sea. Anna's lost brother was sent across the same ocean on a journalistic mission, to report what he found in a city where all social and material structures have sunk into that debris which is the central image of this book. His reports soon cease, and it is one of the small ironies Auster folds into his story that it is Anna, in fact, who will send the last dispatch from a universe of "last things."
What Anna finds in a country whose darkened shoreline warns her at her approach of a disaster beyond words--Hawthorne's "City of Destruction" provides the novel's epigraph--is a nightmare place where no children are born, a univers concentrationnaire whose inmates toil at the collection of garbage and corpses, where mayhem has replaced the rule of law, where nothing, save for a solitary madman's construction of a miniature fleet confined in glass bottles, is manufactured. Its beggared inhabitants scrabble in the ruins for the shards of material goods, the "last things" which give them their final employment in a brutal, half-criminalized salvaging and recycling operation. There is an official currency, measured in "glots," but Auster, who wears his...