the brief history of the dead by Kevin Brockmeier

Laura is on an expedition in Antarctica for the Coca-Cola Corporation making sure its latest proposal to use water sourced from the icecap doesn’t harm local wildlife – not, in a world set in the not-too-distant future, that there is much wildlife left. But when the communication system breaks down her two colleagues go in search of the penguin research team and begin Laura’s slow journey into increasing solitude.

Meanwhile, on the other side of life, the remembered dead are living in a vast city. They believe that they continue to live in the city only as long as a living human being remembers them, even if in the most insignificant way, and only disappear when they are finally forgotten. So the dead continue to live in much the same way they did when they were alive. They eat and sleep and work and fall in and out of love.

Then something happens in the living world that causes whole swathes of the dead to disappear.

What is happening and why does Laura seem to be at the centre of it?

I’m not going to spoil the plot by saying more, but it’s fair to say that though I enjoyed the plot my greatest pleasure was in reading the contemplations of Brockmeier’s characters regarding memory and how its various configurations weave together to form an identity and a life.

“The incident was an inconsequential one – of no importance whatsoever, really. But then most of the things she remembered, most of the things anybody remembered, were of no natural importance – were they? – and that never stopped them from rising into the light.” (p59)

He writes particularly well about solitude. Not only in Laura’s journey through the ice – an epic battle against nature that resonates with all the power of religion and myth where human survival is brought to the very brink by the power of ice and sand deserts, or by water, in an attempt to forge new ways of being, as if endurance itself were the purest form of contemplation – but also through the stories of the other characters living in the city of the dead.

… “life – real life – was really just a solitude waiting to be transfigured.” (p78)

I liked the problems that his afterlife posed: if every one of us is bound within our own minds and can never truly know another, perhaps never even truly know ourselves, how wonderful to be gifted an afterlife by the most fleeting but remembered interaction with another.

Writing the Coca-Cola Corporation into the story was also amusing, though it was hard not to imagine some marketing executive finding a positive association in it. But Brockmeier isn’t pointing fingers at corporations. His near future is so much like our own and Laura’s story so much about her individual experiences with and apart from others, that any judgement is reserved for the individual. The responsibility of human history, dead or alive, rests with each and every living one of us.

the brief history of the dead is a delightful and provocative read. Its landscapes both real and surreal are delicately drawn, the force of nature wielding as much power as and within the mind as characters move through life, into death and beyond.

Next week I’m sticking with brief histories to read A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.