I picked this book as my choice in our Ramblekraft book club. Obviously the post-apocalyptic theme intrigued me although I had heard of the author through meezlys reviews of The Music of Chance and The New York Trilogy.
[We now have a review up from meezlyblog]
[And another from The University of Crumbolst]
In the beginning we meet Anna Blume who has crossed the Atlantic to find her brother, a missing journalist. This information is slowly parsed out over the early section of the book as the City is described. The City is vast and unforgiving. Unemployment is massive, scavenging rife and death easy. Something as simple as the weather can kill you or you can just give up and go to the Euthanasia Clinics (a cool nod, I thought, to Make Room, Make Room/Soylent Green). Everyone who is surviving has to work to survive.
Anna's search recurs but she mainly just lives. The daily struggle of scavenging takes all of her will. The novel feels like one of those POV shots where Anna just takes up with whatever slightly more positive thing comes along. A strange interlude occurs where she lives with a madman and his wife (weird ending) followed by something of a romance in the ruins of a huge public library. Each encounter builds on the last but not in the way that you can immediately put your finger on.
I really enjoyed the concept of the real annihilation of the City. There never seems to be anything produced with everything scavenged or sold like the entire interior of Victoria's house. Entire blocks will just be razed for reasons that are only a rumor. Even the description of trying to navigate the roads which are crumbling and buckling.
For me the theme of this novel was hope. Survival is based on having hope but hope in the story it is almost unreal. Anna never really sees a future or escape from the City. They are certainly always options but always there are barriers: not enough glots, have to care for Samuel. We see that those who give up hope like the shipbuilders wife quickly wither away. The last section of the book obviously is much more positive but I never quite felt it was tangible.
From what I had heard of Auster, I was expecting a book that took the PA genre and used it as hook to hang some modern literature gymnastics: deconstructing this or making it a "meta-sf" that. Similar to Cormac MacCarthy's The Road though, the story remains respectful to the canon of the apocalyptic. In many ways I found it a little like some of the early British PA fiction from Ballard or John Christopher. The human condition is examined in light of a fractured world and we don't explicitly have to know what the destruction is to see it's effects on people.
The narrative is not so driven but I enjoyed the depth of the descriptions. Anna's life was so relentlessly brutal, she persevered and yet I never fully came to sympathize with her. Nevertheless the theme of hope is finally realized in the end and when I thought more about it afterwards I hoped that they all make it somewhere better.