The premise of The Brief History of the Dead had me so excited I didn’t know what to do with myself. Kevin Brockmeier, where have your books been all my life?
There is a city that’s not for the living; it’s not heaven and it’s not hell. On average, the inhabitants stay for sixty years or so before moving on. Moving on to what? Who knows. The people here know they’re dead. The common theory is that they’ll remain for as long as they are remembered by a living person. (As mentioned in the beginning of the book, this is a similar belief held by several African cultures. I regret writing down which ones.)
In a way, the dead have a good life in this ever-expanding city. One man opens the restaurant of his dreams, others choose to drink coffee and read the city’s newspaper. Written by a former journalism professor, Luka, the city newspaper shares the stories of the day as well as updates on the living world as shared by those who recently crossed over.
One day everything slows down. Cafes stop opening. Old friends never show at their usual haunts. The dead are rapidly vanishing from their city and those remaining are left wondering what it all means. We have a myriad of characters caught in a situation ripe for speculation, and the thing is they’re all powerless. It’s a cause and effect scenario, but the cause is in the living world, a place they have no access to.
The author could have written himself into a corner had he not alternated chapters between the dead and the living. The odd chapters are fittingly immersed in the odd city. The even chapters belong to Laura.
Laura is a scientist and she’s still alive. She was shipped off to the Antarctic as part of a publicity stunt for the Coca-Cola company. She arrived at an isolated shack with two colleagues, but when their heating system begins to falter and radio transmissions stop coming, her colleagues go for help. She spends what feels like weeks curled in a tent eating through the last of the food supplies and wondering why rescue hasn’t come. Finally, she’s left with no choice but to leave the flimsy shelter and seek out the station on her own.
These two parallel story lines have one question in common: Where is everyone? What has happened in the world to leave it in such silence? Laura’s isolation has left her as clueless as the lonely dead. Gradually we learn how dire her situation is and why the dead population plateaued after plummeting so far.
The body was the material component of a person. The soul was the non-material component. The spirit was simply the connecting line.
This may be the first book I’ve read that portrays the afterlife as a more appealing place than that of the living. The first chapter is pure fun to read, but after that things plod along the predictable path at an excruciatingly slow pace. Laura’s story line has the highest stakes a character can have, and yet her chapters were a chore to get through. Stuff happens, but it feels inconsequential. Some of the microscopic details called more attention to the writing than the story.
Overall, I found the story to be okay, like watching a movie and realizing that 40 minutes in you’re still waiting for it to start. I had a hard time connecting to any of it – the characters, the mood, the obvious message. Lots of fancy pubs like The Guardian and BookReporter LOVED it so what do I know.
Have you guys read this one yet? Did you love it in an all caps sort of way?