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.)
"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
"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
"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
"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
"Brockmeier is a wonderful writer who knows how to set up an image, pick a verb and convey a sound....[N]obody should cheat themselves of the playful, disturbing, philosophical and funny riffs that Brockmeier manages." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"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
"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
"[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
"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
"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
"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
From Kevin Brockmeier, one of this generation's most inventive young writers, comes a striking new novel about death, life, and the mysterious place in between. The City is inhabited by those who have departed Earth but are still remembered by the living. They will reside in this afterlife until they are completely forgotten. But the City is shrinking, and the residents clearing out. Some of the holdouts, like Luka Sims, who produces the Citys only newspaper, are wondering what exactly is going on. Others, like Coleman Kinzler, believe it is the beginning of the end. Meanwhile, Laura Byrd is trapped in an Antarctic research station, her supplies are running low, her radio finds only static, and the power is failing. With little choice, Laura sets out across the ice to look for help, but time is running out. Kevin Brockmeier alternates these two storylines to create a lyrical and haunting story about love, loss and the power of memory.
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.
Reading Group Guide
1. What makes the premise of The Brief History of the Dead
-that the recently dead inhabit a necropolis very much like an earthly city but only as long as they are remembered by the living-so engaging? What basic human feelings does this idea draw upon?
2. What is the significance of the heartbeat that everyone hears during the passage into death? What happens when it can no longer be heard?
3. In what ways is the city of the dead reassuringly like our own cities? How do people feel about being there?
4. How likely is the future that Brockmeier paints in the novel-melting polar icecaps, the mass extinction of animals, a plague deliberately spread by terrorists? What aspects of our current situation point to such a possibility?
5. During Lindell Trimbles Employee of the Year award acceptance speech, he insists that Coca-Cola must not rest on its laurels but keep its momentum going. “A body is more likely to die at sunset than at any other hour of the day-thats a fact,” he says. “The trick, then, is to keep the sun from setting. Thats what were looking for at Coca-Cola, and what we in the PR division have been fighting so hard to achieve: a sun that never sets. A perpetual noon” [p. 125]. What is wrong with this kind of thinking? What are the consequences of such a philosophy of unbounded hubris and the refusal to accept natural limitation?
6. The dead are surprised by their 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” [p. 11]. Does this seem an accurate description of how memory often works? Why would the dead forget the important things and remember the trivial ones?
7. What does The Brief History of the Dead reveal about the subtle ways a single, ordinary human life is interconnected with thousands of others? Does Pucketts claim that he can remember between fifty and seventy thousand people seem exaggerated or plausible?
8. Explore the connections between the novels main plotlines-Lauras struggle to stay alive in the Antarctic and the existential predicament of the recently dead. In what ways, obvious and subtle, do these stories connect?
9. Why has Kevin Brockmeier chosen Coca-Cola as the medium that carries the deadly virus? What larger cultural, social, political point is he making through this choice? In what ways do current instances of corporate disregard for public health prefigure such an event?
10. What is the next stage of death, “that distant world where broken souls are wrenched out of their histories”? [p. 252]. Is Brockmeier pointing toward heaven or some other kind of afterlife? What will happen to these souls?
11. What are the ironies of Luka Sims running a daily newspaper for the dead and Coleman Kinzler warning the dead about the Second Coming of Christ? What other appealing peculiarities does A Brief History of the Dead provide?
12. In what ways is A Brief History of the Dead both realistic and fantastic? How does Brockmeier balance naturalistic elements from the world as we know it with an imagined future of the human race and a visionary depiction of the first stage of the afterlife?
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your groups discussion of Kevin Brockmeiers brilliantly imagined apocalyptic novel The Brief History of the Dead.