Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Book review: The Brief History of the Dead

What happens when we die? In Kevin Brockmeier's complex and somewhat disturbing novel, The Brief History of the Dead, we cross over to the city of the dead, where we remain as long as someone alive remembers us. When the last person who remembered us dies, we go on to whatever comes next, which is unknown.

The book begins by introducing us to the dead and their city. "The blind man" (the only name he's ever given) and Luka Sims are both dead, the blind man of "old age and neglect," Luka in a car accident. They remain the age they were when they died; Luka is middle-aged, but anyone who died as a child remains a child. They also take up the same occupations of their living years: kids ride skateboards; the blind man walks around the city, navigating by sound and touch; Luka was a newspaper man, so he prints a paper.

Luka talks to the recent arrivals to discover news of the living world, which is some unspecified time in our not-too-distant future. Back on earth, we are introduced to Laura Byrd, a scientist who works for the ubiquitous Coca-Cola company and has been sent on a mission to Antarctica. The company has recently bought the South Pole and is trying to figure out how to purify the water from the melting ice cap.

The story moves back and forth from the living world of Laura to the city of the dead, where the focus shifts among different inhabitants. We learn much about how the recent dead spend their time. They do many usual things, like go to work or out to eat. Some do things they weren't doing in life, like falling in love for the first time, or falling back in love. The big difference between life and the city of the dead is the lack of physical change. No one gets older, no children are born.

We learn a lot about Laura, too -- her first love, her best friend in third grade, a million little details that stick in the brain of any one person. We follow her on a trek across the Antarctic ice, with its heroic triumphs and travails.

As the chapters pass, the parallel tracks of the narrative slowly convergence. As the dead piece together what is happening in the land of the living, we pick up clues of why the story follows Laura so closely, but it's only clear at the end exactly where the lines converge.

While the main characters feel real enough, and we are reliably returned to Laura's story after visiting the city, the author's gaze does not fall steadily on any one of the dead. The resulting change of voice can be disorienting and makes the connections harder to follow. "Was that someone mentioned three chapters back?"” the reader may wonder, and not be sure.

Laura, although a main character, is not entirely realized. There are some good reasons for this, essential to the construction of the narrative. But the author spent a ton of time on her travels, including much detail he garnered from reading true accounts of Antarctic expeditions. We learn enough about Laura to root for her, but it would have been nice to get more. She's courageous, yes, but why? What motivates her? The story could do with more of Laura's past and less ice.

The Coca-Cola company is a character in itself and speaks volumes of what the author thinks of big business. It is amusing, and then alarming, to hear what the mega-corporation is selling, especially how it is selling. The social commentary remains in the background of the story, but it adds depth and color.

This story is inventive and often insightful, but I was happy to leave it in the end. As the tracks of the story converged, the horizon and hope shrank, so what started out as fascinating and interesting ended up being horrifying and depressing. I must admit, however, that since I finished The Brief History of the Dead, I have thought about the people I remember a lot more.

Cross-posted to

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