September 25, 2008

The Brief History of the Dead

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
Contemporary Fiction/Post-Apocalyptic
2007 Vintage Contemporaries
252 pages
Finished on 9/19/08
Rating: 4.75/5 (Fabulous!)
R.I.P. III Challenge #2

Publisher's Blurb:

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.


  1. Hi Les! How exciting to see such a high rating for this book. I have it on my TBR list, but never really made any attempt to pick it up. Now, it will be looked at more closely. Thanks!

    BTW - I'm a sad one. Odd Hours was a big disappointment. :(

  2. Great review! It's an interesting concept. I know I added it to my wishlist back when I first heard about it but I'll have to look into getting a copy.
    As for other dystopian stories, yes definitely The Handmaid's Tale, and how about Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell?

  3. While I haven't yet read them, I hear the books in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies/Pretties/etc. series are great for the YA set.

  4. Anonymous6:54 PM

    Lesley, I'm impressed by that 4.75/5.00 rating and the fact that you didn't want to finish but didn't want to put it down.

    I love books like that!

  5. I love this book but I was not happy at all with the last two chapters. It's a good thing the rest of the book makes up for that.

  6. This one sounds so great; right up my alley. I hope my library has it!

  7. The last couple chapters do indeed put a bit of a damper on the overall experience but, like me, you seem to have been pretty wowed by the story. I think the opening chapters in particular are some of the most amazing writing I've ever read. I just love the way he introduces the reader to characters and to the world.

    I think it is a pretty common thing to read this book and start thinking about people from your past. I did the same thing. I love the concept, it certainly made for a thought provoking read. I just picked up the book the other day when I was cleaning and had a nice 'remember when' moment from reading it last December. So glad you finally got to it and enjoyed it.

    As for post-apocalyptic, I certainly recommend the very odd but interesting Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick.

  8. Joy - This is really a winner, although, as I said, the last two chapters are a bit over the top. I'll be anxious to hear your thoughts, if you do get to it.

    Sorry to hear Odd Hours was a big disappointment. I wonder if he'll continue with the character and storyline.

    Debbie - Thanks for the recommendation! I've read this one, but will keep it in mind when I set the endcap. Oryx and Crake is another good one. Hope all is well with you.

    Nat - It is an interesting concept, isn't it? Thanks for the recommendation for Cloud Atlas. I've seen it on the shelves at work, but haven't heard anything (good or bad) about it.

    Lexi - I've seen these at work, but really don't know anything about the series. Thanks for the rec and for stopping by my blog.

    Shana - I do, too. It's been a while since I've read something so engrossing and thought-provoking. It's definitely one I'll read again.

    Katya - Yeah, those final chapters were really strange, weren't they? What an imagination!

    Andi - You'd love it. I'd send you my copy, but it's a keeper. Sorry. ;)

    Carl - I can't thank you enough for bringing this fabulous book to my attention. Yeah, the final chapters were a bit much, but thankfully they didn't ruin the reading experience. Have you read anything else by Brockmeier? His new book sounds interesting. And thanks for the recommendation. I've heard good things about the book and will add it to my list. He wrote Minority Report, right? I loved the movie and would love to read the book someday.

  9. Anonymous7:27 AM

    Oryx and Crake by Atwood and Children of Men by James?

  10. After such a rave review, I will have to add this to my list.

  11. Janet - Yes! Oryx and Crake is a good one. I read it when it first came out, but always seem to forget about it. I don't know anything about Children of Men, but will look at it tomorrow. Thanks!

    Framed - Hope you enjoy it.


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