Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

Some of my favorite books these days have a speculative edge to them, or employ an improbable or fantastical element to illuminate real human emotions, ideas and themes. (Examples: The Confessions of Max Tivoli; The Time Traveler’s Wife; Little, Big.) This one mixes the improbable (depending on your religious beliefs, I suppose) with the scarily probable. There are two stories at work: one in which a virus ravages the planet and kills people off by the millions, and one in which the dead who are still remembered by the living arrive in a City where they continue their ‘lives’ until those who remember them dies. In the City, the dead live on—meeting new people, working, watching movies—and do what many of us would like to do: start over armed with more knowledge about ourselves and how to appreciate what little time we have. There are some beautiful sequences here, and some evocative writing; the City is ample playground for Brockmeier to ruminate on life, memory, connection, human understanding and life itself. Parallel to this is the story of Laura Byrd, a wildlife researcher for Coca-Cola stranded alone in the Antarctic who discovers day by day just how alone she is. Some great questions and concepts emerge here—like, try to make a list of absolutely everyone you have come into contact in your life: postal workers, retail clerks, teachers, classmates, people you noticed on the bus. How many people has your life touched without your even thinking about it? The virus that kills off the human race was so scary to me, and conjured memories of my first reading of Stephen King’s The Stand (I read the expanded version years later); I remember reading that one with a cold, no less, and having nightmares. (And I just saw V for Vendetta which drove it home as well.) While the end of this book is a bit crushing, I found it a compulsive read with many memorable characters and moments.

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