This is an investigation of eight novels incorporating the fantastic, with a view to drawing some conclusions about the place of speculation in fiction.

Paul Auster has been getting it in the neck from The New Yorker critic James Wood. Wood takes the opportunity of a review of Auster’s most recent novel, Invisible, to parody his oeuvre, concluding with a damning precis of what he takes to be the stereotypical Auster novel:

“A protagonist, nearly always male, often a writer or an intellectual, lives monkishly, coddling a loss—a deceased or divorced wife, dead children, a missing brother. Violent accidents perforate the narratives, both as a means of insisting on the contingency of existence and as a means of keeping the reader reading…. The narratives conduct themselves like realistic stories, except for a slight lack of conviction and a general B-movie atmosphere. There are doubles, alter egos, doppelgängers, and appearances by a character named Paul Auster. At the end of the story, the hints that have been scattered like mouse droppings lead us to the postmodern hole in the book where the rodent got in: the revelation that some or all of what we have been reading has probably been imagined by the protagonist.” 

This is clearly the template of Auster’s early success, The New York Trilogy (1987). Most of the elements listed above appear in some form or other in the three postmodern detective novellas grouped under this title. And it is the bane of the successful writer to have to repeat his tricks, for slowly diminishing artistic returns. Genre writers (Conan Doyle, shackled to Holmes) have always known this, but successful literary novelists can be destroyed by the expectation, unless they possess the endless fecundity of a Dickens. Most writers are commercially unsuccessful, and therefore free of this yoke; they are not locked into a publishing deal for a book a year, come what may. I guess this can be terrifying and/or dispiriting at times.

But there is another Auster novel dating from 1987 that doesn’t conform so exactly to the template. And curiously, In the Country of Last Things addresses the existential problem implicitly at the heart of the alleged shortcomings that prompted Wood’s attack: failure of creativity, inexorably diminishing resources, heat death.

The protagonist in this case is female, and the novel is cast (not entirely convincingly) in epistolary form. Anna Blume (her name stolen from a famous Dada poem by Kurt Schwitters) has managed to get her book-length message out from within that staple of speculative fiction – yes, I’ve used it myself! – an unnamed city. And here she is trapped forever. The novel opens:

“These are the last things, she wrote. One by one they disappear and never come back. I can tell you of the ones I have seen, of the ones that are no more, but I doubt there will be time. It is all happening too fast now, and I cannot keep up.”

The city, which is the capital of an unknown country, is like a black hole, where all energy is consumed and, once attracted within its orbit, no person or thing can escape. She has gone in search of her brother William, a journalist who went to this place on an investigative assignment and disappeared. Now she faces the same fate.

At first, the city-state seems to suffer under a particularly dismal old-style communist regime: “Shortages are frequent, and a food that has given you pleasure one day will more than likely be gone the next…. One day there will be nothing but radishes, another day nothing but stale chocolate cake.” But it soon becomes apparent from Anna’s account that something weirder and more sinister is going on: “Things fall apart and vanish, and nothing new is made. People die, and babies refuse to be born.” There are spectacular outbreaks of suicide, sometimes assisted by the authorities in the form of the Euthanasia Clinics and the Assassination Clubs.

This is a place where nothing new can come into being, which is gradually consuming itself. “Life as we know it has ended, and yet no one is able to grasp what has taken its place.”

Anna relates her narrative of survival, as an officially licensed scavenger, at first on her own, then in league with an elderly, dying couple. She finds refuge in what remains of the National Library, where a group of Jewish dissidents are holed out (but not for long). A journalist named Sam Farr, a former colleague of her brother’s, who has previously been assigned to find him, without success, is discovered living here. He is filling time writing a book that no one will ever read. They form a liaison, and Anna even becomes pregnant, an extraordinary event in the country of last things – but eventually any remaining hope is extinguished, and she is almost killed, before being rescued by a philanthropic organisation called Woburn House. This institution is dedicated to helping a dwindling, dying clientele, eating up its own resources to do so. The project is, of course, doomed. Anna plans yet another escape, and promises to write again to the recipient of her text if she succeeds. The promise is the last act of this narrative.

The paradox of the narrative is that, under its own terms, it cannot have escaped the environment in which it was created; therefore it cannot have been received. The narrator is lost forever, and there is no recipient.

Auster’s novel is therefore not just an apocalyptic fantasy of last things but an absurdist text that cannot logically exist because it is eaten up by its own premise. (Naming the protagonist after the subject of a Dada poem is a none too subtle clue…)

As such, it is an impossible act to follow, and so it is no surprise that Auster has not really written anything like it since. But it may just act as an ironic commentary, near the start of the author’s career, on the diminishing returns awaiting us all in due course.

And 20 years after its publication it has grim relevance for the postmodern world in which we survive. A world in which no long-term political solutions are apparent, and puny attempts at amelioration are doomed. A world in which culture is consuming itself on a vast scale while we think we’re achieving something by doing the recycling each week – yes, it’s somewhat familiar.

Next episode – G K Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday