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The Brief History of the Dead
Kevin Brockmeier
Pantheon, 255 pages

The Brief History of the Dead
Kevin Brockmeier
Kevin Brockmeier is the author of The Truth About Celia and a children's book, City of Names. He has published stories in The Georgia Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and McSweeney's, and his story "Space" from Things That Fall from the Sky has been selected for The Best American Short Stories. He has received the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award, an Italo Calvino Short Fiction Award, a James Michener-Paul Engle Fellowship, two O'Henry Awards (one, a first prize), and most recently, a NEA grant. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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A review by Matthew Cheney

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We begin with a city: vast, mysterious, a good place for the living dead to hang out while they wait to be forgotten. In Kevin Brockmeier's cosmology (apparently inspired by a vague mix of African and Asian mythoi) purgatory is urban, and the spirits or souls or somethings of the dead inhabit it until they are no longer remembered by the living, and then they cross over to an unknown realm, truly dead and truly gone, their history lost with their names.

It's a comforting sort of spirituality in its own way, a vision not quite as bleak as the denial of everything other than fertilizer and not quite as moralistic as what most organized religions offer. What Brockmeier does with it is what's most interesting about The Brief History of the Dead, however, because the brilliant question fueling the book is: What happens to the land of the dead-but-not-forgotten when the land of the living is destroyed?

The Brief History of the Dead alternates chapters between stories of people in the unnamed city of death and the story of Laura Byrd, a wildlife specialist hired by the Coca-Cola corporation to do some PR-savvy research in Antarctica. Things have gone wrong at the research station, though, and Laura and her two companions lose contact with their base back in warmer climes. Her companions set out to get help from another research station and don't return, leaving Laura alone in Antarctica, running out of food and supplies.

Meanwhile, the city is losing its inhabitants at a particularly fast rate, a ghost town without ghosts. The few people who remain, the few people who have not passed on, begin to discover strange connections between each other, and most of those connections trace back to one person: Laura Byrd.

Laura sets out on a journey across Antarctica in a last attempt to save herself, or at least learn what has happened to the world, while the remaining spirits in the city piece together their lives and memories. The novel takes on the air of a mystery, with clues piling up, but the answers to most questions become clear long before the end, and the pleasure of the book lies in seeing how incidents and characters who earlier seemed unconnected are actually part of a larger story -- a story that is the embodiment of one person's memory.

This conceit is also the book's primary weakness. The first half of The Brief History of the Dead is compelling and fascinating, full of interesting characters, lyrically restrained prose, and amusing bits of satire. The structure Brockmeier has created, though, limits him, making the second half of the novel a clever puzzle but not much more. Laura's entire trek across the ice becomes a drawn-out excuse for her to remember random memories, and the vignettes in the city become predictable illustrations and variations on those memories. It's all well written and superficially captivating, but it's not satisfying because the structure creates such a write-by-numbers quality to the storytelling that most of the emotional energy built up in the first half is dispersed. The first chapters of the book sing with imagination and invention, but most of that feeling withers away in the second half, with Brockmeier straining to compensate with banal philosophizing, unconvincing cliffhangers, and flaccid surrealism. There's plenty to be amused by here, but there's nothing much to care about.

The weaknesses of the second half cut the wires suspending a logical reader's disbelief and let it drop to the ground and sprout questions about the way this afterlife is configured. What exactly counts as "remembering"? How have businesses and services functioned in a city where people so often disappear suddenly? Why are all the people speaking English? What sort of economy does the city have? Why is it so American and generally middle class?

These questions didn't bother me when I began the book, because it felt like a fable, and fables aren't supposed to be logical. But with each passing page, the novel asserts its reality more and more, and the more we see of the city, the more questions remain -- not just questions that the characters themselves don't know the answers to, but questions of everyday life there. The setting begins to feel more convenient than imaginative, an unfortunate mix of lazy fabulism and not-gritty-enough realism.

The Brief History of the Dead began as a much-acclaimed short story in The New Yorker, and that story serves as the first chapter of the book. Like many books expanded from excellent short stories, this one is marvelous in conception, but not rich enough to justify its length. As a novella, it might have been perfect. As a novel, it is sometimes magnificent, but ultimately hollow.

Copyright © 2006 Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney teaches at the New Hampton School and has published in English Journal, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, and Locus, among other places. He writes regularly about science fiction on his weblog, The Mumpsimus.


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