Friday, May 19, 2006

The Brief History of the Dead

by Kevin Brockmeier

Imagine a world in which everyone but you has read a particular book. Each reader has crossed over into an alternate universe that continues to exist as long as there is still that one person—you—who hasn’t finished reading. When you do, when you turn that last page and close the book’s cover, what happens to the alternate universe? I feel a little like that with Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead which, it seems, everyone had read but me. But now that I’ve read it, does existence as we know it end? (Apparently not, but that might just mean that there’s at least one other person out there who hasn’t read the book.)

Before I forget, let me say that I enjoyed this book very much. Its ending is anticipatable, but that is not flaw. In fact, it makes the book a tragedy. We hope the ending might be different but, alas, it cannot be different. And the fact is that the ending is written so beautifully, that the tragedy is almost euphoric.

Here’s the conceit: there is a place, a kind of limbo, into which souls pass when they die and remain as long as they continue exist in the memory of a living person. As long as people go on living, this place is populated with the remembered souls. But imagine the coming of a horrific virus that kills unprecedented numbers. At first, the population of this place skyrockets and then as the living population declines so too does the remembered population. This is an imaginative conceit on a par with Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and while not as complex is as convincingly rendered. The story is told in alternating chapters, through the eyes of the living and the dead as the virus continues to take its toll.

But the conceit isn’t the only thing that’s wonderful. Brockmeier’s language is stunning. Here’s an example:
“It was a mistake for her to think of him as innocent, uncomplicated. She knew that. But there was something about his fussiness, his obedience to certain long-established routines, along with the carelessness with which he presented himself to the world, that made it easy for her to imagine him as a child. She had imagined, for instance, that he was the one who had never seen their marriage clearly—or seen himself clearly, for that matter. That he was the one who was half-broken by every little sickness that came his way, and by nostalgia for the way he used to be, and by worry over what had happened to Laura. But she was beginning to suspect that it had been her all along. She was the innocent one. She was the child.”
Check out this interview with Brockmeier in WebdelSol.

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