Thursday, August 16, 2007

Not if you were the last person on earth...

The Brief History of the Dead / Kevin Brockmeier
New York : Vintage, 2007, c2006.
252 p.

I read this brief history on my brief getaway, and I enjoyed the read. On mulling it over, I see some fatal flaws, but it was a good read while it was underway. The basic premise of this novel is that there is another world after this one; a great City in which everyone who dies remains as long as they are remembered by someone still alive. Once that last person who knew you personally dies, you pass on to the great unknown. This is a wonderful conceit, and of course to properly play with it, the author has to posit what would occur when the entire population of the earth, save one, dies simultaneously. This is what he indeed does; humanity is wiped out by a rapidly replicating virus known as "The Blinks", and the only person left alive on the entire planet is Laura Byrd, a scientist in Antarctica. She has been kept clear of infection due to the fact that her team's supplies have been damaged by storms and the other two scientists with her have set off for help. They never return, having been infected when they locate a recently arrived team of researchers carrying the virus. After a few weeks she realizes she is truly alone, and sets out on her own to find the research camp. She does, and finds 20 graves as well. She sets out again, this time to a penguin rookery where there should be radio equipment which she can use to contact the outside world. She arrives. The equipment is damaged beyond repair. At this point, near the end of the book, Laura succumbs to exhaustion, starvation and extreme frostbite. Simultaneously, the nether-city shrinks and shrinks, finally vanishing completely.

The idea of an afterlife City reminds me of the 1940's novel All Hallows Eve. In that novel, the City is dark and echoing with emptiness; the dead are pictured as being stranded, in a lifeless city, alone. In this novel, the City seems to operate just like a large urban centre, with apartments, restaurants, parks and so forth. The practical questions of sewage and garbage don't come up. The inhabitants eat and drink and work and philosophize much as they would while alive. The good part of this is that you meet various inhabitants and hear their stories of dying and arriving at the City. The not so good part of this is that you meet various inhabitants and hear their stories of dying and arriving at the City. The chapters alternate between the City and Laura, and after a while I really didn't care how or why the beggar on the corner or the teenage boys in the park died and made their way to the city. I really just wanted to find out what Laura was doing.

Placing Laura in Antarctica was clearly a necessary move -- where else would she be completely isolated from all human and animal life for an extended period of time? However, I felt that he did not use Antarctica to full advantage. There was no mystery for me in her trek across the ice. She moved quickly and without much difficulty except for the cold. The real story was the City, and Laura's experience of the Antarctic seemed like simply a convenient backdrop. It was ultimately unsatisfying for me; Laura does not seem to ever come to the realization that she is the last person alive on Earth, she does not seem to really pay attention to the world around her or feel sorrow or regret at leaving it. There is never any contact between the inhabitants of the City and Laura, so she doesn't experience a revelation of life after death. There are just too many loose ends in the philosophical set-up for it to fully convince me. I suppose I am the practical sort and couldn't just accept the idea of a "City of the Dead" which has no government, economy, or municipal services, yet people eat and function no differently than when alive. Nobody appears to have had any mystical experiences in death, nobody has been changed by dying. I feel that this novel didn't reach far enough.

It is an original piece of work, though, and will make you think (though hopefully not about unattended sewage, as I kept circling back to, sigh.) He brings up some intriguing ideas. At one point, one of the characters is trying to estimate how many people you might interact with in your life -- how many you would be keeping in the City -- and I defy anyone not to stop and wonder what your own number would be. The writing is generally quite good, the tone and style matched to the theme of memory and love and connection. Overall, though, it just doesn't hang together, at least for me. But if you want to read a literary-like fantasy that brings up some discussion points, give this a try. Also - the cover is great - very appealing and suited to the story.


  1. Hi Melanie. This is a wonderful posting. I just added your page to the links at my "Other Puddles" section of my blog.
    I find it remarkable that you have read All Hallows Eve! I've read that one and The Place of the Lion and Descent Into Hell, and my favorite I guess is this last one.
    Charles Williams is by no means an easy read!
    I have several of his other novels on my shelf and have not gotten the courage to read them yet! I'm a great fan of ALL The Inklings.
    Everything good to you.
    -- Cip

  2. I recently added this book to my TBR collection and I'm looking forward to reading it one of these days. I've read mixed reviews about it--it sounds different, I'll say that! Great review, by the way!

  3. I just bought this book yesterday and its on its way to me. I wish though that I had stopped reading before I found out what happened in Antarctica, darn. Need a *spoiler* on the top of that post!

    I too just bookmarked.

  4. Crystallyn - whoops, I should have thought of that. Hope it doesn't spoil your reading!

  5. I read this one last year, Melanie, and I really enjoyed it. I still think about it every so often, in fact, and wonder how long I would last in the mysterious City. It sort of humbles a person to think along those lines and to realize how little impact any of us generally has on the world in which we spend most of a century.

    Nice review...enjoyed it.

  6. Thanks for reviewing this. I've been wondering about it because the cover is so creepy. It sounds like it had such potential but didn't quite make it.

  7. As you mentioned on my site, I probably enjoyed this more than you did. I found his writing style to be excellent and really enjoyed the suspense that built up by the alternating chapters structure of the book. As I also mentioned, the last 2 chapters, particularly Laura's last chapter, just didn't do anything for me and actually lessened my praise of the book. A friend mentioned the other day that he wished the book had ended with Laura's next to last chapter and I agree. In fact


    I would have found it a more interesting end to have Laura die then cut to a scene of her parents seeing her in The City...leaving it there would have left one with the impression that someone else must be alive since they still existed, thus is would have had a more hopeful, and yet mysterious, end.

    I'm just not sure he knew how to end the book. I think it kind of unraveled in those last chapters.


    All that being said, I still really enjoyed the book and consider it one of my favorite reads of the year.


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