Paul Auster seems like such a stable, engaging man, not at all the type to be afflicted by the stuff of bad dreams.
The 40-year-old novelist, who teaches creative writing at Princeton University, talks of his happy marriage. He has a 9-year-old son, Daniel, whom he clearly adores. He's eagerly awaiting the birth of his second child just weeks from now. And he recently bought a small apartment for his family in Brooklyn.
He is also the kind of person who practices small niceties. "Would you like me to pour your tea?" he asked a reporter one recent spring afternoon in a Hollywood Hills cafe.
So how did someone as apparently easygoing as Auster manage to conjure up "In the Country of Last Things" (Viking: $15.95), an unrelievedly grim novel set in a city where half the population is homeless and starving. Where death is such a welcome alternative to life that "assassination clubs," "euthanasia clinics," and suicide cults abound. Where corpses litter the streets and are routinely stripped by scavengers or relatives, a practice that compels Anna Blume, the pragmatic young narrator, to remark: "If the gold from your husband's tooth can feed you for a month, who is to say you are wrong to pull it out?"
All on the Dark Side
Possibly the only thing missing from this bleak vision of civilization is a gang of motorcycle mutants a la "Mad Max." "The funny thing is," said Auster, by way of explaining how he came to write this apocalyptic tale, "all the books I do are on the dark side. The older I get, the less I question the sources of stories. They just occur. That's why it's difficult to talk about the book. Things just impose themselves on you."
But then the author of the highly regarded "New York Trilogy," a series of "unconventional" psychological detective thrillers, is definitely taken with the idea that disorder betrays character. He reads a lot of books on history and Third World politics, and his conversation is loaded with allusions to the gruesome and bizarre. "There's a book I like very much," he said, sipping lemonade as he talked. "It's called 'Hunger.' It's about a young writer working around Oslo who is starving to death."
Referring to an "extraordinary" book on the Angolan revolution he recently read, he recalled how after the Portuguese fled the capital of Luanda, there was one movie theater and one movie--the X-rated "Emmanuel"--in town. "In the middle of this chaos," Auster said, "the projectionist showed the movie 24 hours a day for free. And every time it came to a particularly sexy spot, he would stop the film, freeze frame it, and everyone would comment, cheer, or hiss."
Pausing, he laughed and shook his head. "No one could make this up. But these things happen all the time. All the time."
A World Coming Apart
Clearly, Auster's novel stems in part from his conviction that the world as we know it is coming apart. He is appalled by the problem of the homeless. "It's hard to close your eyes to it. And it's not a very long step toward imagining yourself in that position. Anyone with any sensitivity is going to think about these things."
And he is distressed that few of us seem to be paying much attention. "I don't think we really find out who we are until we lose things. In America, we're so surrounded by things I don't think we think about it very much."
In fact, he said of his novel: "One of the subtitles I had in mind--a working phrase--was, Anna Blume walks through the 20th Century. A lot of the events in this book are simply things that have happened. This is not a futuristic novel."
Take, for example, the "horrifying scene" where Anna is lured to a human slaughterhouse.
"That's true," Auster said. "There were human slaughterhouses. It happened in Leningrad during the Second World War, when the Nazis hemmed in the city for 2 1/2 years."
Auster concedes that some readers might find his novel "depressing," with its portrayal of a world in such irremedial decay. But whether it is or not is really beside the point.
"For all the grimness of the book, I think there is some buoyancy to it," he said. "I think most of the characters are people who are fighting to preserve their humanity under these terrible conditions. Because that's really what the book is: how do you remain human when the world is falling apart?
"I suppose if people read the book in an honest way, maybe they would think about their own relationship to things around them--the political realities, the social realities, wars, ideologies, economic chaos--things we've lived with for so long that we hardly notice them anymore."
'It's a Short Book'
Auster perhaps feels so passionately about this novel for another reason. Begun in 1970, "In the Country of Last Things" took him an astonishing 15 years to write--a fact he is somewhat embarrassed about. "I know. I know," he said, smiling. "It's a short book."