September 25, 2008
The Brief History of the Dead
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
2007 Vintage Contemporaries
Finished on 9/19/08
Rating: 4.75/5 (Fabulous!)
R.I.P. III Challenge #2
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 City's 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 story lines to create a lyrical and haunting tale about love, loss, and the power of memory.
Wow! What a fantastically unique story. I was intrigued when I first read about this book on Carl's blog and I'm glad his R.I.P. III Challenge inspired me to move it up in my stacks. I haven't read such a thought-provoking and imaginative story since Jose Saramago's Blindness.
Brockmeier's novel originally appeared as a short story in The New Yorker (2004). I just finished skimming through the story and have to say (with one caveat) I'm glad he decided to re-work it into a novel. My quibble lies in the last two chapters. The surreal finale was a bit too mystical for my taste, thus my less-than-perfect rating. Nonetheless, I firmly believe this compelling story will stay with me for a long time. I was completely engrossed, not wanting to finish, yet not wanting to put it down. This is definitely going on my Top Ten list for the year. Thank you, Carl, for bringing this marvelous book to my attention.
Some thought-provoking passages:
Occasionally one of the dead, someone who had just completed the crossing, would mistake the city for heaven. It was a misunderstanding that never persisted for long. What kind of heaven had the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and chewing gum on the pavement, and the smell of fish rotting by the river? What kind of hell, for that matter, had bakeries and dogwood trees and perfect blue days that made the hairs on the back of your neck rise on end? No, the city was not heaven, and it was not hell, and it certainly was not the world. It stood to reason, then, that it had to be something else.
Dying had changed Marion Byrd. She had been so weary back when she was alive: weary of talking and weary of eating; wear of thinking, remembering, desiring, anticipating; weary, most of all, of the prospect of seeing her life out to its natural end. She felt as though she had spent the last ten years of her life carrying a tremendous unshaped stone on her shoulders. The effort of keeping her legs upright and simply walking underneath it had nearly crippled her. She didn't know how to cast it off, or even where it had come from, only that she had to carry it.
But then the virus had appeared and she had died, and suddenly everything was different.
On people you've known during your life:
How many people was any one human being likely to remember? A thousand? Maybe if you were cursed with a particularly slipshod memory. So then—ten thousand? A hundred thousand? A million? Of course, if you ran out your life in some small village deep in the Himalayas, the number would be greatly diminished, but Michael Puckett wasn't thinking about Himalayan villagers. Or monks, or nuns, or kids who never lived past that falling-down-drunk stage of toddlerhood. He was thinking about himself, his own life, and by extension, he was thinking about Laura. She was the common element, after all, the link or what have you. After all the discussion he had heard in the city, that much was obvious.
He had spent the better part of a week trying to come up with a good solid number, one that took his entire forty-three years of life into account. At first he tried to make the calculations mentally, sorting through the great crowd of people in his head as he listened to the stereo or rested in bed at night. But when he realized how complicated the whole matter was turning out to be, he pulled out his #2 pencil and a blank pad of paper and settled down to work.
This one really got me thinking. I didn't go so far as compiling a written list of everyone I could remember ever meeting, but I did find myself thinking about people from my past: that cute boy (Matthew?) in my first grade class, my third grade teacher (Mrs. Bauer), a family I used to babysit for who had the BEST junk food (!), former co-workers... the list is endless! How many people have you known in your lifetime?
Now I'm even more inspired me to continue with this genre, tossing around an idea for a new endcap, one that concentrates on novels with post-apocalyptic themes. So far, I have On the Beach, Wastelands, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Lucifer's Hammer to add to my TBR stack. Any other recommendations? I've already read The Road, Alas, Babylon, Earth Abides, Swan Song, The Stand, and I Am Legend. Any favorites I'm missing?
Be sure to check out Carl's fabulous review here. This is such a gripping story and I look forward to hand-selling several copies this holiday season.