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The Brief History of the Dead: A Novelby Kevin Brockmeier
"Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead is perhaps the most densely romantic novel I have ever read to also feature a deadly airborne virus and a satire of marketing gimmicks....The idea of the city threatens, at times, to become mawkish...but it is rescued by the thoroughness and weirdness of its conceit....Brockmeier has not only written an allegory of our connection to those we have lost, but he has shot it through with the darkest fears of our times." Anna Godbersen, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
Synopses & Reviews
"Remember me when I'm gone" just took on a whole new meaning.
The City is inhabited by the recently departed, who reside there only as long as they remain in the memories of the living. Among the current residents of this afterlife are Luka Sims, who prints the only newspaper in the City, with news from the other side; Coleman Kinzler, a vagrant who speaks the cautionary words of God; and Marion and Phillip Byrd, who find themselves falling in love again after decades of marriage.
On Earth, Laura Byrd is trapped by extreme weather in an Antarctic research station. She's alone and unable to contact the outside world: her radio is down and the power is failing. She's running out of supplies as quickly as she's running out of time.
Kevin Brockmeier interweaves these two stories in a spellbinding tale of human connections across boundaries of all kinds. The Brief History of the Dead is the work of a remarkably gifted writer.
"A deadly virus has spread rapidly across Earth, effectively cutting off wildlife specialist Laura Byrd at her crippled Antarctica research station from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the planet's dead populate "the city," located on a surreal Earth-like alternate plane, but their afterlives depend on the memories of the living, such as Laura, back on home turf. Forced to cross the frozen tundra, Laura free-associates to keep herself alert; her random memories work to sustain a plethora of people in the city, including her best friend from childhood, a blind man she'd met in the street, her former journalism professor and her parents. Brockmeier (The Truth About Celia) follows all of them with sympathy, from their initial, bewildered arrival in the city to their attempts to construct new lives. He meditates throughout on memory's power and resilience, and gives vivid shape to the city, a place where a giraffe's spots might detach and hover about a street conversation among denizens. He simultaneously keeps the stakes of Laura's struggle high: as she fights for survival, her parents find a second chance for love — but only if Laura can keep them afloat. Other subplots are equally convincing and reflect on relationships in a beautiful, delicate manner; the book seems to say that, in a way, the virus has already arrived." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"'Which do you like better,' one characters asks another in 'The Brief History of the Dead,' 'the idea of the past or the idea of the future?' In Kevin Brockmeier's modest but inventive novel, we have both: a story set in the near future where people seem always turning to small moments from their past. They exist, all but one, in an afterlife called the City. The City looks like a European... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) capital filled with Americans — think Prague. It even has 'movie theaters, gymnasiums, hardware stores, karaoke bars, basketball courts, and falafel stands.' Brockmeier does a wonderful job of conjuring up the dead as they move about in this familiar setting: 'They might go weeks and months without thinking of the houses and neighborhoods they had grown up in, their triumphs of shame and glory.' A rumor claims that they exist only as long as they are remembered by living people on Earth — about 60 years or so — and then they disappear from this kind of second life. But as the novel starts, the city is beginning to empty alarmingly fast. Some citizens, like the newspaperman Luka Sims, a young woman named Minny and a blind man, fear they may be the last of the dead. Slowly, we hear rumors that a virus has been sweeping the Earth. ('"What happened to you?" Luka asks Minny. "The same thing that happened to everyone else," she said. "The Blinks."') Meanwhile, on Earth, a research scientist named Laura Byrd is all alone in Antarctica, trying to fix a communications malfunction after her colleagues have left to seek help. One of the great pleasures of reading this novel is slowly coming to the realization that those remaining in the City are all remembered by one person: Laura Byrd. Just as they are the last of the dead, she is the last of the living. It's a striking premise and, for much of the novel, deftly told through hints and rumors. But as Brockmeier alternates between Laura's story of survival in Antarctica and the daily lives in the afterlife, he uses Laura's memories as a transition between the two worlds. As Tolstoy said, art is in the transitions, and here Brockmeier's seams are showing. Just after Laura survives a harrowing accident, we hear that 'for reasons that were inexplicable to her, she began thinking about the small neighborhood park that was located just down the street from her apartment.' Inexplicable indeed; it's an unlikely survival instinct. Similarly, after a major disappointment on the ice, Laura 'couldn't help thinking of the secret fortress she had played in the summer she was ten years old.' Disappointingly, the memories that follow these sudden flashes illuminate little about Laura; their sole purpose is to connect to characters in the afterlife, to prove they are remembered. These now-dead characters, however, are no more deeply developed; some, like a God-fearing homeless man ('There was one part of him that believed that God truly was love'), verge on cliche. These small connective memories can add bones to characters, but Brockmeier keeps providing them, always with new characters, until the very last pages of the novel, a time when readers expect echoes, not introductions. But the storytelling can be thrilling, particularly in the Antarctica section (taken from real explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard's memoir), and the writing is often clever. ('Dying had changed Marion Byrd.') Just as often, however, Brockmeier loses his nerve and hands us a diary spelling out events we would have enjoyed piecing together, or he fills a page with description that illuminates neither character nor theme ('She watched Phillip drink the last of his coffee and return the spoon to his cup with a tiny clink, pushing them both to the side of the table' and so on.) Such elongations can stretch a novel too thin. What we long for is feeling. Brockmeier has teased some intriguing new ideas out of the last-man-on-Earth genre — especially tying in the fate of the afterlife to the fate of those living — but he has missed out on the great beauty of imaginative literature: metaphor. When we read Jose Saramago's 'The Stone Raft,' a novel about the Iberian Peninsula floating off from Europe, we are faintly aware that we are talking about something more than geography. But 'The Brief History of the Dead' rarely feels larger than the pages in your hands. Brockmeier gets close when describing some penguins Laura comes across: 'The ones that didn't have eggs were balancing egg-sized lumps of ice there, dead little worlds that they protected as avidly as though they were real.' This image at last echoes what should be the center of the book: the hollow sadness of memory. A big-titled novel about the afterlife and the dead is an opportunity for such sublime imagery; it is also a trap for sentimentality, and Brockmeier has, perhaps too cautiously, chosen to avoid both. Andrew Sean Greer's most recent novel is 'The Confessions of Max Tivoli.'" Reviewed by Andrew Sean Greer, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Brockmeier...spends too much time on earthbound Laura...and not enough on the eerie and infinitely more interesting afterworld. Although it never quite lives up to its promising premise, the novel's Borges-like spirit will appeal to select readers." Booklist
"In his brilliant new novel, The Brief History of the Dead, afterlife in the City seems pleasant enough....Brockmeier's characters are wonderful, and his images are dazzling." Detroit Free Press
"Brockmeier's second novel, The Brief History of the Dead, is meticulously imagined. And his writing is as elegant as it was in 2003's The Truth About Celia, even if the end result isn't as wrenching. (Grade: B)" Entertainment Weekly
"Beautifully written and brilliantly realized, this imaginative work from the author of The Truth About Celia delivers a startling sense of what it really means to be alive. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"It is both an evocative novel and a fanciful one, both spooky and riveting....What's memorable and moving about Brockmeier's novel are the pieces of consciousness that form the life and then outlive it." Boston Globe
"[T]his writer has nothing but an enthusiasm for life, and the marvelous inventions of his stories, both lovely and loving, are a tremendous infusion of energy in an often exhausted and exhausting world." Chicago Tribune
"This could have been a spectacular book about love, loss and memory. Instead, the slow pace, endless travel, and uneventful narratives leave one disappointed and unsatisfied." Philadelphia Inquirer
"Brockmeier is a wonderful writer who knows how to set up an image, pick a verb and convey a sound....
"It's a gracefully written story that blends fantasy, philosophical speculation, adventure and crystalline moments of compassion without ever feeling forced or lumpy." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"The Brief History of the Dead is a brilliant high-wire act, at turns terrifying, wise, and humane. Kevin Brockmeier builds an intricate labyrinth, then guides us through with wit and aplomb." Colson Whitehead, author of The Colossus of New York
"Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead is moving and disquieting, a 'futuristic' novel that is really an elegy for how we live now." Kevin Baker, author of Paradise Alley
About the Author
Kevin Brockmeier is the author of The Truth About Celia, Things That Fall from the Sky, and two children's novels, City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. His stories have appeared in many publications, including the New Yorker, McSweeney's, The Georgia Review, The Best American Short Stories, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and multiple editions of the O. Henry Prize Stories anthology. He is the recipient of a Nelson Algren Award, an Italo Calvino Short Fiction Award, a James Michener-Paul Engle Fellowship, three O. Henry Awards — one of which was a first prize — and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He has taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.
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