Month: July 2014

Review of “In the Country of Last Things” by Paul Auster

In The Country Of Last ThingsI’m a fan of utopian and dystopian literature, so when Paul Auster’s 1987 novel In the Country of Last Things was recommended to me, I dropped what I was reading at that time and set to it immediately.  I was drawn into Auster’s imagery right away from the beginning; in fact, many of his descriptive passages were quite harrowing, setting the scene of this futuristic no-named city well, but I found that the more I read, the more the book started to wane from the expectations this scenery was creating.  I wasn’t expecting the book to start so slowly, given we don’t actually learn about Anna Blume, the central protagonist in the story, and the reasons for her predicament until around page 41, when she reflects back on a meeting with the editor from the newspaper her brother works for; given this book is only 188 pages long, I consider this to be a late start.  While the introduction was a bit long-winded, telling, rather than showing us, how this imaginary society is, this wasn’t what bothered me about the book. I found the scope of the world Auster created to be extremely limiting.

I can’t help but call out a few of the inaccuracies in this novel.  Moments that are explained to us early on turn out to be something else later in the story.  For example, her brother worked for a newspaper which sent him off on assignment overseas to cover an exclusive story, but he ends up missing in the end.  Having followed him to the city where our story takes place, in hopes of finding him there, Anna tells us a bit about where she is:

“this country is enormous, you understand, and there’s no telling where he might have gone.  Beyond the agricultural zone to the west, there are supposedly several hundred miles of desert.  Beyond that, however, one hears talk of more cities, of mountain ranges, of mines and factories, of vast territories stretching all the way to a second ocean.  Perhaps there is some truth to this talk” (Auster 40).

She then goes on to tell us how she ended up in the city in the first place, having taken a lead from her brother’s employer, an editor named Bogat who “exud[es] an air of abstracted benevolence that seemed tinged with cunning, a pleasantness that masked some secret edge of cruelty” (Auster 40), a description consistent to the rest of Auster’s style.  His comments, she recalls, offer some sense of foreshadow, when he states, “Don’t do it little girl… You’d be crazy to go there…. No one gets out of there.  It’s the end of the goddamned world” (41).  And, he was right.  We never learn if she ever leaves, but this is not what bothers me so much.  It’s her failed sense of geography.

I know, you’re probably thinking — what does that have to do with anything, especially in a fictional world?  Yet, for all of this talk about her brother going off to a foreign land to report, and herself traveling there in hopes of finding him, you would think her knowledge of the world would be better than how she leads on.  She doesn’t even know if there is a second ocean on the other side of the country she’s in — “Perhaps there is some truth to this talk,” she says.  I find this to be a bit hard to believe, since it doesn’t come off as a story set in the 15th century, where cartography and exploration of the planet were still in their infancy, but rather a futuristic tale where libraries, newspapers, and even airports exist.  The way I see it, she doesn’t have an excuse for not knowing.

This is but one of a couple of inconsistencies I found to be in this story of survival.  Where the story lacks in plausibility, it makes up for it in Auster’s strength in characterization and imagery, though.  One example of this can be found when Ferdinand dies.  Anna, struggling in the streets, alone and impoverished, is offered shelter by an old, married woman, Isabel and her husband, Ferdinand, both of whom take her in for a considerable part of the story.  Ferdinand proves to be an old, embittered tyrant of a husband, however, so this creates quite a bit of tension in the story.  Once Ferdinand dies, we learn a lot about Isabel’s relationship to him, more so at this point than at any other when he was still alive.  Auster reveals deeply embedded feelings about their life together in the simplest manner of expression:

“Isabel spent the rest of the morning fussing over Ferdinand’s body.  She refused to let me help, and for several hours I just sat in my corner and watched her.  It was pointless to put any clothes on Ferdinand, of course, but Isabel wouldn’t have it any other way.  She wanted him to look like the man he had been years ago, before anger and self-pity had destroyed him…. Isabel worked with incredible slowness, laboring over each detail with maddening precision, never once pausing, never once speeding up, and after a while it began to get on my nerves.  I wanted everything to be done with as quickly as possible,  but Isabel paid no attention to me. She was so wrapped up in what she was doing, I doubt that she even knew I was there” (71).

The meticulous manner in which the matronly Isabel sets to preparing her husband for death, not a funeral per say, as dead bodies are policed up off the street like garbage and sent to the outskirts of town, but for something more than ‘processing’.  Auster captures the ritual involved with preparing the dead so well in this scene that it creates a deep feeling of nostalgia and inner-peace for Isabel as one could only hope for the now widowed woman.

There are some intense moments in the story, some which left me cringing from the suspense Auster’s dramatization creates.  There are also some dull points in the story, as well.  While I enjoyed reading about the characters in this story, it is safe to say that I found it a bit lacking to believe in the dystopian world he creates, a world with no-name and no sense of itself.  A bit disappointing really, but I won’t let this novel keep me from reading any of this other books.  He has a great writer’s voice; it’s just that in the end, this fallen society leaves me wanting more.

Advertisements

A Toast to Writing

A Scotch Whiskey Glass from thechoppingblock.com

The purpose of this post is to simply write about anything I want –writing for writing’s sake — to help motivate me to write a bit more frequently, to see what comes from free writing.  Typically, when I sit down to write a piece, I invest myself in the planning, the layout, the presentation; I look up words that I think may make sense in the context I am trying to use them in; I even reverse outline my drafts to ensure that I have catered to some sense of organization.  One article I wrote took me well into a week before I even considered posting it to the public.  To write like this — more openly, more freely, letting loose my thoughts and allowing myself to say what I want — I find, requires more effort.  In all respects, I am not used to chronicling my thoughts on a more sporadic basis, and I find it telling to simply hold up with the challenge I have set for myself to write more.  It’s hard for me to just let go.

Take this post, for instance.  I am writing this for the sake of free-writing my way into this piece.  A motivation piece, if you will.  Yet, I do not feel all that motivated to let go of myself.  I have never felt like the type of person to simply let go of my reserve, always staying in control of my environment, aside from the occasional run-in with a bottle of Scotch.  Perhaps, therein lies a truth to my dilemma for want of a better word.  Whenever I drink, I do it to relax, to enjoy the savory flavors of the alcohol, whiskey being my current poison.  In my youth, I would indulge a bit too heartily into the mirth that comes with social drinking and would inevitably find myself hung-over the next morning with little recollection for the night before.  I have always been a happy drunk early on, then as the fresh air and perpetual motion of the world around me set into place, my head would become the center of gravitational forces my drunken stupor failed to understand.  I almost always became the hopelessly pathetic drunk, a clear sign that I had overdrawn my limit.  Could this be compared to writing in anyway?  Could it be possible to get drunk on words in the same way one gets drunk on alcohol, to let these words — all words — course through me like the first stinging swig of whiskey, settling on the tongue with its oaken and smoked luster?  In finding my muse I would find that same relaxed state of mind that comes after a couple of drinks.

Perhaps this is why so many writers have been known to be raging alcoholics.  To sit before a writing desk or table and commit one’s self to the writing of a novel, to the characterization of memories invoked as protagonists, bringing with their creation the hardships that serves as the basis for their existence, evoked through the need to write something, anything.  It’s in the alcohol that the true work of an artist emerges.  The reserve that comes with sobriety,  of being self-conscious of the world around, of the people listening and watching, of social expectations, of responsibilities — this reserve holds back those who seek to let it out on paper.  In reading Jack London’s biography, he occasionally drank the drinks of men, hitting the saloons along the sea ports wherever he was, whiskey helping to maintain the social call.  Ernest Hemingway, another one of literature’s great writers, was notorious for his love of the drink.  In a letter he wrote to Ivan Kashkin in 1935, Hemingway describes what drinking meant to him, by this point a lifelong admirer of the bottle: “When you work all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?… Modern life, too, is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief” (qtd. in Willett).  If these men and many others like them of equal caste, no doubt, were drinking as often as they were and were able nonetheless to produce some of the greatest works of fiction and non-fiction the literary world has known, no doubt there must be some truth to alcohol’s role as a provocateur of men.

I have often heard that a writer has not really mastered the art of his craft until his muse has taken him over, producing a work entirely uninhibited by restraint.  Giving in to the moment, the writer is consumed in the act of writing, letting his body serve only as a conveyor for the thoughts pouring forth from his mind.  Thought transference at its finest.  Nothing else matters but the moment in which the mind takes over the body and produces a work of fiction, the characters as real as those standing nearby.  Whether alcohol of any sort is useful in evoking such experiences is hard to tell, what with the many variables associated with alcohol consumption and the merriment, melancholy or stupor that often comes with it.  No doubt, though, it is not needed so long as you are able to find a hook, something to pull you into the moment where you stop thinking about yourself and start to focus on the writing you want to do.  Looking back at where I was 170 words into this piece, I see how effective it is to let oneself go for a moment, forgetting about the body and its needs and allowing the mind to work how it wants.  And this, I might add, was done without the influence of alcohol.

Works Cited

Willett, Megan. “In the Post-Script of a Letter, Ernest Hemingway Explained his Deep Love of Alcohol.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc. 02 Jul. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.