In this novel, Paul Auster has painted a brutally beautiful portrait of a society in collapse, and the ways humanity finds ways not only to go on in the face of horrific desolation, but to retain its soul. There's a "dark fairy tale meets Dickensian social realism" vibe to this novel. I could easily picture this adapted into a film by Terry Gilliam -- he and Auster seem to share a particular post-apocalyptic aesthetic of the bizarre and the grotesque.
The story follows privileged young woman Anna Blume as she journeys into a place known only as the City in search of her missing journalist brother. Anna is filled with a 19-year-old's arrogance and dumb belief that venturing into this broken foreign world will be simple, but she quickly learns that nothing is simple in the City. Life here is harsh, where governments rise and fall faster than the seasons change, and the only true authority is chaos. Auster only hints at what happened in this nameless place. The apocalypse seems to have been economic, with allusions to a government ill-equipped to battle rising tides of homelessness and joblessness that eventually overwhelmed the place and led to its downfall -- a scenario that feels eerily possible nearly 25 years after the book's 1987 publication date, as economists speculate about the United States' possible slide into a depression, and the only thing our elected leaders can seem to accomplish is to squabble.
Work is scarce in the City. The only traditional jobs seem to be with the government of the day, but getting those jobs takes money and connections. Anna has some money, but no connections, and so she instead chooses to support herself by joining the legions of people who make their living picking through the city's decaying detritus looking for objects of any use or value. The city no longer has manufacturing or industry, and so even broken items can be of value. As Anna points out, even something broken may yet have a working part. Perhaps that works as a metaphor for the City itself -- a place that's broken, but that has pockets of civilization remaining.
The narrative itself is epistolary -- the entire story is Anna's letter to a friend back home, first describing the City itself and the bizarre groups and factions that have formed -- like the Runners, people who have decided death is better than the life the City offers and so literally run until they collapse. Auster's writing is vivid enough, and the world he creates is intriguing enough, to carry the reader through these initial pages until Anna's story really starts around page 39 with her remembrance of her naive encounter with her brother's newspaper editor back home (we're never told where that is) that leads her to the City. Soon after this scene, Anna rescues a woman named Isabel from being run over and begins the first of a series of episodes that mark her time in the city. After having spent months on the City's streets, she goes to live with Isabel and Isabel's shiftless husband Ferdinand, who is obsessed with building smaller and smaller ships inside bottles. Isabel is kind and treats Anna like a daughter, and Anna find her first true home since arriving in the City.
Of course, anything good is ephemeral, and the Anna's period of contentment is marred by an attempted rape, a murder and then Isabel's death from a wasting disease. She'll repeat this pattern of rise and fall twice more (which I found very reminiscent of Dickens and other Victorian novels -- she even encounters a Victorian-style reformer along the way), with Anna finding and losing love, facing the horrorific depths to which humanity can sink when civilization collapses (of course, there's cannabilism), but also seeing the beauty that remains in those weary souls trying to preserve culture, dignity and compassion.
Auster finishes the book on a note that is both hopeful and bittersweet as Anna and the makeshift family she has found in the City finally set out on a journey away from the place that has nearly consumed them all. It's no accident of the narrative that the book ends during the first blushes of spring, when winter is just beginning to melt away. The ending is like that first green shoot in the mud that you know will bloom into a daffodil if you just hold on a little longer and wait out the cold. And I think that's what the novel does well -- it's grim, but Auster's view of humanity retains a sense of hope and grace that I like to believe will be there should we ever face such dark days ourselves.