The Brief History of the Dead

by Kevin Brockmeier

Published by Pantheon

272 pages, 2006


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Gone... But Never Forgotten

Reviewed by Andi Shechter

 

This is a gentle novel. It takes as its premise the idea that there's something between life and death. People who still are in someone's living memory, still exist on a different plane, in a different place. As long as someone on earth remembers you, you still exist.

The earth here, however is not the earth as we know it, so the story is skewed from the start. There's been a huge pandemic, one that has, in the future, killed off most of the population of the planet. It's not a flu virus, so this is not exactly an apocalyptic story to be read with one eye on the newspaper. It is a modern day earth pretty much given over to the corporations; the most important living being on the planet is Laura Byrd, who is one of only a few employees of a corporation -- Coca Cola of all places -- at a research station in Antarctica. (And while yes, Emperor penguins are part of this story as well, it's a rather remarkable coincidence that only a few months before publication of the book, a documentary on those birds appeared. It wasn't deliberately planned, could not have been. But the visuals from that film did help me picture a few of the elements of the narrative.)

Byrd and her two co-workers are at a station where the radio has failed; surely someone must be aware that they've been out of contact? But no one comes, nothing happens, so she's left behind while the other two go off to find the scientists with the work radio at another research station.

Meanwhile, an entire city -- a city sort of in the middle of nowhere, or on some other plane of existence -- continues. It's not clear at all first who these people are, but they are certainly dead people. Or rather they died but they are here. They wake up every day, go have coffee, go to the park. Some of them -- Laura's parents, as it turns out -- spend their time realizing that the marriage bond they thought had crumbled is still viable and they start enjoying each others' company again.

There's a newspaperman who tries to make sense and stories out of who, what and perhaps where they are, but many of the people are pretty careful not to ask. There's an apocalyptic believer who paints signs about Jesus -- sort of like what you see on the streets of any large North American city. But the city, which has streets and signs, sometimes undergoes major shifts and changes. It shrinks, roads disappear, new people show up. Do they know why they're still hanging on? Not really, or not quite.

When people do suddenly disappear en masse, eventually it becomes clear why those people no longer exist in the city and why the city limits have shrunk.

The story goes back and forth between the two realities. It mostly works but I admit that after a while, Laura's tribulations got seriously boring to me, which is a nasty thing to admit. But her endless trek across the ice with a sled, while it was clearly life and death, became dull and endless reading. Learning what happened back in "civilization" is fascinating and creepy. Understanding the realities of the City -- side stories like the man who looks for his brother who died as a child and finds the brother's roommate -- for here the brother lived a long alternative life, until the last family member died, for then he simply, as they do, disappeared. All the threads are well-woven together. It was just that for the last 50 pages or so of this book, I both wanted to know (and fought flipping ahead) and did not want to know the resolution. | January 2006

 

Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.