A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD by Kevin Brockmeier

Book Quote:

“The dead were often surprised by such memories. They might go weeks and months without thinking of the houses and neighborhoods they had grown up in, their triumphs of shame and glory, the jobs, routines, and hobbies that had slowly eaten away their lives, yet the smallest, most inconsequential episode would leap into their thoughts a hundred times a day, like a fish smacking its tail on the surface of a lake. . . They seemed so much heavier than they should have been, as if they were where the true burden of [life’s] meaning lay.”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd  (JUN 05, 2011)

Kevin Brockmeier builds his novel, A Brief History of the Dead, on a platitude: the dead live on in the memory of the living. The City is a mysterious metropolis that seems to expand by folding in on itself, much like the convoluted corrugations of the brain, in order to accommodate its ever-increasing population. However, this unearthly metastasis notwithstanding, The City isn’t much different than any urban environment found in the living world. People get up, they go to work, they go grocery shopping, and life is still filled with the minor annoyances endemic to city life like “the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning, chewing gum on the pavement, and the smell of rotting fish by the river.” Of course, simple pleasures obtain here too, and on a warm spring day, “the park by the river was busiest of city’s busy places, with its row of white pavilions and its long strip of living grass.”

And so life goes on for the City’s residents, much like it does here on Earth, plagued with the uncertainty that underlies existence, the dead not knowing why they’re there, how long they have, and what, if anything, follows their time in the City. Of course, there are a number of theories, the most widely held being that the City was a some sort of “outer room” for people who still “endured in living memory.” The persistent thumping everyone hears – the “Ba-dum. Ba-dum. Ba-dum” of a heartbeat – seems to lend credence to the theory that the persistent and ubiquitous pounding is “the pulse of those who are still alive. The living carrying [the dead] inside of them like pearls.” However, as most of the City’s population suddenly disappears, and the City itself seems to shrink on itself, the last remaining residents, eventually settling together in the monument district, soon realize they all have one person in common: Laura Byrd.

From Luka Sims, the editor of the City’s only paper, to Lindell Trimble, a PR executive at Coca-Cola, to Coleman Kinzler, a sidewalk preacher, to Bill Bristow, toll booth attendant turned restauranteur: all, for one reason or another, remembered by Laura Byrd.

Laura Byrd, for her part, is having a rough go of being what appears to be the last person left on Earth. Sent by Coca-Cola to the Antarctic on a research expedition to determine the plausibility of using the melting ice-caps in a new Coke (“Coca-Cola – made from the freshest water on planet”), Laura finds herself alone in the research station when the power kicks out. Robert Joyce and Michael Puckett, her co-researchers, set out for another research station more than three weeks ago after their antenna snapped and the team lost the ability to communicate with Coca-Cola, and Laura has long lost hope of their return. With no power and no means of communication, Laura is left with little choice but to follow in their sledge tracks, hoping that she’ll have better luck reaching the other research station and contacting her employer.

After a harrowing journey across a difficult expanse of snow and ice, she finally reaches the station to learn what residents of the City already know. A virus, developed as a biological weapon, has mutated, spreading around the world, killing nearly everyone. By the time she reaches the station, it is too late: all of the members of the research team are dead, Joyce and Puckett nowhere to be found. Moreover, the communication equipment is only picking up fuzz. Her choice: stay, safe and warm with an abundant supply of fresh food and vegetables, in a station potentially still infected with the bio-agent, or venture back across the ice to a penguin rookery with a stronger antenna.

As Laura tries to survive the harsh conditions of Antarctica, in a survival bid of their own, some of the City’s residents try to devise means to contact her. Others are resigned to their fate, whatever it may be, content to go on with their lives in the City with only partial knowledge of the mechanism of their existence, faced with the near certainty that it won’t last forever.

The premise here – that the dead live on in memory – is so fraught with creative potential that it would have been hard not to be disappointed with this book. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that Brockmeier never followed the implications of his scenario through. Was there meant to be an infinite regress of such Cities, places where the people remembered by the remembered lived? Aptly, Laura’s mental state has a causative effect on the City – her perpetual cold in Antarctica causes the City’s snowy streak; her automatic association of her co-researchers, Joyce and Puckett, repeatedly brings them together through coincidence –and yet, Brockmeier strangely stops there, leaving me wondering about Laura’s other feelings and associations; why they didn’t affect the City similarly? Moreover, if Laura’s memory was the mechanism by which the City’s residents lived, why didn’t they appear in the City as Laura remembered them? Laura’s childhood friend, Minny Rings, lives in the City as a full grown woman, even though Laura hasn’t seen her since they were girls. These issues, coupled with the fact that the culprit behind the pandemic couldn’t have been more clichéd, left me ultimately unsatisfied.

With all that said, however, Kevin Brockmeier is an imaginative writer, and this book contains one of the most creative depictions of a death – and perhaps the only actual description of the phenomenology of death – that I’ve ever read. I just wish that what promised to be a fascinating exploration of life and death, cause and effect, memory and communication, didn’t fall victim to a hesitant and ambiguous metaphysics that raised far too many questions and made suspension of disbelief impossible.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 145 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage (January 9, 2007)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Kevin Brockmeier
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

The Illumination

Bibliography:

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June 5, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Contemporary, Reading Guide, Speculative (Beyond Reality), Theme driven

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