“The living carry us inside them like pearls. We survive only as long as they remember us.”
- spoken by Luka Sims, a character in Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief history of the Dead
Okay, I’ve still got the damn, summer cold. And I’ve had no sleep courtesy of the kid and her nighttime problems/habits. Nonetheless, I was able to finish Brockmeier’s book this weekend. And what’s the “definition” going around on facebook lately: “BOOK HANGOVER – the inability to start a new book because you’re still living in the last book’s world” ( from www.someecards.com). Me, I’ve got that, and I highly recommend the book so that you can work on your own hangover. (Plus, it’s not a new book – 2006 – so you can pick it up on the cheap.)
The gist is that once you die, you find yourself in “the City.” Maybe it’s Purgatory; I think not, though, and, besides, the book steers pretty clear of religious discussions and those various takes on death. Thankfully. As the quote above indicates, the now deceased individuals in the City remain there as long as someone still living remembers them. It doesn’t have to be a profound memory, either, so many are there for six or more decades. They work, they eat, they play much as they did when they were alive. And they have no clue regarding their final “relocation” once they’re forgotten.
Early on, the City’s population suddenly and precipitously declines. Where’s everyone gone? And why? Initially, those remaining and the reader have no idea. Meanwhile, we switch to another narrative, that of Laura Byrd, a Coca Cola scientist on assignment in Antarctica in an indeterminate future that has seen global warfare, increased environmental destruction, and the proliferation of ever more powerful, multinational corporations. (It’s not good to be Coca Cola in Brockmeier’s world.) While Laura’s been checking out wildlife “down south,”, a virus has decimated the world’s population. Really. All of it. So, for that smallish group now left in the City, their current being relies on the fact that somehow Laura is still alive and knew each one of them.
The chapters alternate between Laura’s point of view and those of various City residents. We learn about the lives each lived, the lives each touched. Brockmeier does make a few missteps. Early on in the City, as later, we never hear the babble of various languages and cultures. Everyone seems to be American. And while some characters were remarkably well drawn, for example, the blind man, others are less so, like Minny (Laura’s childhood friend, who in the City falls in love with Laura’s college professor). The novel too, runs long in places; it could have used some editing, a trim here and there.
Regardless, Brockmeier creates such an imaginative and magical world – or two. The language is often poetic. The themes, I’m sure, have set many a book club tongue wagging. They include: isolation, loneliness, self-sufficiency, dreams, the nature of love, blindness, end-of-times, memory, regret, and fear. I encourage you to pick up The Brief History of the Dead and give it a whirl. Then let me know what you think about it, about death, memory, whatever.
Now – on to more summer reading.
(If you’d like to read another review of A Brief History of the Dead, you can do so on Salon.com.)