Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Last things

I've been wanting to read In the Country of Last Things, by Paul Auster, for a long time because:

1. I've liked (loved!) everything I've read of Auster's work, and it seems to me I haven't read nearly enough.
2. I have a crush on Paul Auster.
3. This book is his favourite, I learned last year, though by "favourite" it is not clear whether he means most personal, most ambitious or challenging, of which he's most proud or sentimental.

The country is a dystopia, reported on in a traditional manner. The book takes the form of Anna Blume's letter to home. She left for this place when she 19 years old to look for her older brother (she never finds him). We do not know if her notebook ever reached the hands it was intended for or how (if) it came to be found.

The prose is spare, at times perhaps even immature, but it lends some authenticity to the young narrator and how she views this world.

J-F has read the opening pages and says it's a rip-off of Soylent Green. I'm more familiar with Soylent Green through its reputation than I have memory of actual first-hand knowledge of it, so let's just trust J-F on this and counter, "So what?"

Runners, leapers, assassination clubs. Euthanasia clinics. Transformation centres, converting dead bodies into fuel, and later we encounter one of the human slaughterhouses rumored to exist.

To start, Anna describes this place and its conditions — the climate, the people and their occupations, thebureaucraticc processes — before recounting her personal journey, which ultimately doesn't cover much physical ground. The people are generally bound, economically and by governmental controls, to the zones of the city — undoubtedly New York.

It seems to me that it's not that the gulf between the rich and the poor has widened so much as the numbers comprising these populations have been redistributed — almost everyone is impoverished, if not homeless. Many live in subway terminals. She describes the underground "societies," the scavenging. She finds Quinn's passport (lost in City of Glass).

Things (people?) in themselves apart from their function or purpose:
It is an odd thing, I believe, to be constantly looking down at the ground, always searching for broken and discarded things. After a while, it must surely affect the brain. For nothing is really itself anymore. There are pieces of this and pieces of that, but none of it fits together. And yet, very strangely, at the limit of all this chaos, everything begins to fuse again.

The story as a dystopia was a little disappointing (but having had a few days to think about it now I rather respect Auster's commentary on economics and sustainability, though I still don't think that's what the book's about) — we never learn how this place came to be so bleak ("it takes a long time for a world to vanish"), suspicious because the narrator's own reference point is a life that sounds much like ours. We know only that the government changes often enough to prevent anything from being accomplished. We hear about "the rich," but we do not know where or how they live, if they exist at all.

Anna near the beginning refers to herself as a squeamish little rich girl. Some of the citizens "turn themselves into grotesque parodies of the prosperous and well-fed." And there is a pastry shop. Some people among the vast dispossessed population must still recognize that there is (or was) another way to live.

"In order to live, you must make yourself die."

Under one government's policy of tolerance, scholars and writers, then religious groups and journalists, were housed in public buildings such as, fittingly, libraries. But the systematization of the library has been disrupted. "When you consider that there were seven floors of stacks, to say that a book was in the wrong place was as much to say that it had ceased to exist." The subsidy cuts academics off from the world while skewing their perception of reality. (Later we hear that the Library burned to the ground.)

Anna's story, her personal relationships and attachments, is slim and inconsequential. The novel is another of Auster's games, a reflection on memory and its impermanence and "the language of ghosts."

What about an airplane? I said. What's an airplane? he asked, smiling at me in a puzzled sort of way, as though I had just told a joke he didn't understand. An airplane, I said. A machine that flies through the air and carries people from one place to another. That's ridiculous, he said, giving me a suspicious kind of look. There's no such thing. It's impossible. Don't you remember? I asked. I don't know what you're talking about, he said. You could get into trouble for spreading that kind of nonsense. The government doesn't like it when people make up stories. It's bad for morale.
You see what you are up against here. It's not just that things vanish — but once they vanish, the memory of them vanishes as well. Dark areas form in the brain, and unless you make a constant effort to summon up the things that are gone, they will quickly be lost to you forever. . . . Memory is not an act of will, after all. It is something that happens in spite of oneself, and when too much is changing all the time, the brain is bound to falter, things are bound to slip through it.
. . .
In the end, the problem is not so much that people forget, but that they do not always forget the same thing. What still exists as a memory for one person can be irretrievably lost for another, and this creates difficulties, insuperable barriers against understanding. How can you talk to someone about airplanes, for example, if that person doesn't know what an airplane is. It is a slow but ineluctable process of erasure. Words tend to last a bit longer than things, but eventually they fade too, along with the pictures they once evoked. Entire categories of objects disappear — flowerpots, for example, or cigarette filters, or rubber bands — and for a time you will be able to recognize those words, even if you cannot recall what they mean. But then, little by little, the words become only sounds, a random collection of glottals and fricatives, a storm of whirling phonemes, and finally the whole thing just collapses into gibberish. The word "flowerpot" will make no more sense to you than the word "splandigo." Your mind will hear it, but it will register as something incomprehensible, a word from a language you cannot speak. As more and more of these foreign-sounding words crop up around you, conversations become rather strenuous. In effect, each person is speaking his own private language...

Mr Frick:
Mr Frick had an odd, ungrammatical way of speaking, and he often made a hash of his ideas when trying to express them. I don't think this had anything to do with the quality of his mind — it was simply that words gave him trouble. He had difficulty maneuvering them around his tongue, and he would sometimes stumble over them as though they were physical objects, literal stones cluttering his mouth. Because of this, he seemed especially sensitive to the internal properties of words themselves: their sounds as divorced from their meanings, their symmetries and contradictions. "Words be what tells me how to know," he once explained to me. "That's why I got to be such an old man. My name is Otto. It go back and forth the same. It don't end nowhere but begin again. I get to live twice that way, twice as long as no one else. You too, miss. You be named the same as me. A-n-n-a. Back and forth the same, just like Otto myself. That's why you got to be born again..."

Boris, on the other hand, uses empty words to create dream worlds:
Boris had an aversion to being pinned down, and he used language as an instrument of locomotion — constantly on the move, darting and feinting, circling, disappearing, suddenly appearing again in a different spot.

The words are the last things.

I love Paul Auster.

Anna promises to try to write again when they get to where they're going. Dare I hope?

New York Times
Conversational Reading.
"The Definitive Website."
Part of a dissertation.

(Also, a review I read this weekend of a book that may share some themes with this one: "We Indians have this sublime ability to see the pain and misery around us and yet remain unaffected by it. So . . . close your eyes, close your ears, close your mouth, and you will be happy like me.")
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