The Brief History of the Dead
by Kevin Brockmeier
Published by Vintage
252 pages, 2007
A Spectacular Answer to "What If?"
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
Everybody responds to a different kind of hook. I respond to great ideas. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don't. Sometimes, you just know a book is going to be great, and sometimes, even in their greatness, they still disappoint.
I responded to the idea of The Brief History of the Dead, in which two stories unfold simultaneously in alternating chapters. In the first, earth's population has been hit with a deadly virus that quickly wipes out billions. One woman, apparently isolated from the virus, has been left alone in a research station in the Antarctic. No one calls in, she can't call out and her food supply isn't as abundant as it used to be.
In the other, we meet a score of characters who are already dead. They've succumbed to the virus and have congregated in the city, a place that's not quite heaven, yet not quite anything else. It's simply the next place, populated only by those who still live on in someone's memory. (That is, when everyone who remembers them has died, they vanish.)
You have to admit, both of these worlds sound fascinating. But that wasn't the hook for me. The hook was: How are these two stories related? Of course they had to be, and indeed they are -- and no, I ain't telling.
Even better than the idea of The Brief History of the Dead is the ways its author teases out the intricacies of his dual plot, their connective tissue. I am cursed with the ability to guess what's coming, as many of us are, and while I guessed many of the details here before they were revealed, I was impressed by Brockmeier's ability to offer up keen surprises at those moments. It wasn't the numerous inter-world connections that made reading this book fun, but the way those connections are woven through the plot. Much as hate to admit it, this book is smarter than I am.
Laura Byrd, the woman in the Antarctic, has a rough time of it. Her two companions have bugged out for help and food and she's been left to fend for herself, unsure of just about everything. In her research station, then out on the icy Antarctic tundra, and then at another station, she endures hunger, excessive cold, mechanical glitches and an endless stream of questions and memories, each one of which keep her engaged enough to take one more step. And then another. And then another. Hers is a brutal, heroic journey that will leave you delighted to be in your jammies and slippers, with nothing to do but read.
Meanwhile, the men and women in the city are simply trying to understand what's happened to them. They know about the virus, and thus how they died. What they don't know is where they are and why they're there. Their quest for understanding is one of the primary drivers of the book. Understanding is as vital to them as food and warmth are to Laura Byrd.
Brockmeier's writing is a joy. It's spare, though not Spartan, made so by his choices of telling detail, which are beautiful, simple, and spot on. There's not a superfluous word here, and so the reading goes quickly.
The Brief History of the Dead is one of those books you buy for the idea, then savor for its expert, sure-handed realization. Everyone should write this well. | April 2007
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse and a contributing editor to January Magazine and Blue Coupe. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, New Jersey where he is hard at work on an exciting new chapter in his life.