The Brief History of the Dead
By Kevin Brockmeier, Pantheon Books (division or Random House), paperback, $22.95.
Little Rock writer Kevin Brockmeier has made quite a name for himself in recent years as one of America’s best practitioners of fabulist fiction — fiction that, while realist on its surface, plays with the reader’s expectations about time, space and character, often sprinkling in a generous handful of the improbable and the absurd. As such, Brockmeier’s fiction is always a joy to read, full of twists and turns that only a master could dream up.
His new novel, “The Brief History of the Dead,” is no less imaginative. While it is bleaker than his previous efforts, “History” reaches out a little further than anything he’s written before, going after some of the big questions of the universe. Though it doesn’t always succeed, it’s still a great ride, and a fine read.
The setting is as surrealistic as a Dali painting: a vast — maybe unbounded — city where all the people who die go after they’ve breathed their last here on terra firma. No streets of gold here, either. This is a city in the classic sense, with garbage trucks, skyscrapers, panhandlers, gum on the sidewalks, traffic accidents, corner bakeries and everything else you might expect. The dead don’t trade up for new bodies either. The blind stay blind, the crippled stay crippled, children end up as orphans (until their parents join them, at least) and old soccer injuries still ache when it rains.
Though there seems to be a God factor at work — if only for the fact that nobody really has to work if they don’t want to — we never really figure out the mechanism behind the city: who built it, who supplies it with power and water and eggs and fresh citizens. We do know how the inhabitants get their ticket out, however. The dead remain there until the last person living on earth who remembers them dies, at which point they disappear and move on to an undetermined fate.
Though that is an intriguing concept in itself, “History” really gets cranked up when newcomers to the city start reporting that, back on earth, things have gone to hell. Someone, somewhere, has released a supervirus called “The Blinks,” which kills its victims within a day. Though the city experiences a population boom for awhile, as the world collapses back on earth, the numbers in the ethereal city dwindle down until the streets are almost empty.
In a series of alternating chapters — odd numbered chapters set in the “real” world of the not-too-distant future, even numbered chapters set in the afterlife — we find out why: A scientist named Laura Byrd might be the last person left alive on earth. A researcher for Coca-Cola, Byrd had been dispatched to Antarctica to study the feasibility of using melting ice pack as a source of fresh water. With their radio knocked out by a storm, she and her two companions don’t know about the virus wreaking havoc back home. With her companions lost during an attempt to reach a distant research station, Byrd is holed up, far from any source of contagion. As she struggles to figure out her next move, the inhabitants of the city slowly disappear, until all that remain are those people who Byrd had known in her life — childhood friends, teachers, bums she had once given some change to, and a legion of Coca-Cola executives (who, bizarrely, set up a heavenly corporate office in an abandoned building in the city of the dead). Finally, the fate of the city rests on her survival.
Though the premise behind “The Brief History of the Dead” seems like something you could write volumes about, the truth is, once you get over the initial fascination with the idea of a city full of dead folks going about their afterlives, you realize that it’s kind of a one-trick pony, something maybe better suited to a short story. The promise of the first chapter — that we might get to some kind of ultimate truth about why this city exists, who built it, and what its “here until you’re forgotten” framework has to do with our existence here on earth — is kind of squandered in the Laura Byrd/supervirus co-plot, and soon we’ve left behind any hope of getting the loudest of our nagging questions answered. Is the city an illusion? A dream? An alternate universe? Where is the Wizard of Oz’s castle, and how do I get there? I want to know.
Too, after awhile, I couldn’t stop wondering: Where does it all come from? There are cars in the city. Is there an assembly line of phantom workers somewhere, cranking out sensible, mid-sized sedans? There’s a shopping mall. Who builds the toasters, tennis shoes and negligees that stock its shelves? Where does the electricity come from? Where does the wheat for the flour that puts bread on their ghostly tables come from?
Trivial, perhaps, but also a symptom of the greater problem of “History”: that it begins with an absolutely fascinating idea — one that speaks to one of the great mysteries of life — and then spends 230-some pages talking about everything but that. Because of that seeming avoidance of the big-ticket items on the bill, what had been a dripping faucet of doubt soon turned into a timpani drum, which took a lot of the shine off my early enthusiasm for the book.
All this is not to say that “The Brief History of the Dead” isn’t absolutely brilliant on an imaginative level. The characters are fully realized, with wants and desires that make them leap off the page. (And, too, it occurs to me that maybe the lack of history in “History” might be Brockmeier’s larger point: that we can’t see through the veil of death — that death isn’t something that can be “figured out.”) Though it doesn’t always live up to the promise generated by its blockbuster first chapter, “The Brief History of the Dead” is still a fine read, and definitely a signpost pointing toward the sterling future of this great young author.