The Highbrow

The Brief History of the Dead

An apocalyptic new book by a young novelist.

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

Kevin Brockmeier is a young American novelist who deserves to be better-known than he is. Forgoing noisy postmodern experimentation and restrained slice-of-life realism, Brockmeier writes fabulist short stories influenced by fairy tales and science fiction. In his work, to take one example, a man’s marriage disintegrates as the sky sinks ever closer to the ground, and—to take another—we learn about Rumpelstiltskin’s life after the fairy tale ends, having stomped so hard in anger that he split himself in two. Borrowing from the archetypes of genre fiction has allowed Brockmeier to write with poignant wistfulness about our ironized society without becoming either sentimental or coolly detached. At times in his first two books for adults, Things That Fall From the Sky (2002) and The Truth About Celia (2003), he has seemed more like a visitor to our era than an inhabitant of it. But now, in his new book, The Brief History of the Dead, Brockmeier has written a novel that gracefully captures modern-day anxieties about terrorism and futuristic decay—and a book that makes us feel, for a moment, how strange it is that humans live in glass and metal boxes suspended above the ground. This, after all, is what fantasy can do best: restore our sense of wonder.

An apocalyptic fantasia, The Brief History of the Dead offers a powerful twist on the way we imagine death. It opens in a mysterious city without boundaries, populated by billions of inhabitants who do not age and who are preoccupied with the story of their “crossing.” “When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had traveled across a desert of living sand,” we learn; another woman arrived after she simply “began to snow.” Though these people seem to lead recognizable lives—one is a newspaperman, another is a beggar, others play mah-jongg—it gradually dawns on us that they are dead and reside at a kind of way station. None of them mistakes it for heaven. (Only the recently arrived even inquire.) As the novel opens, millions of the newly dead have flooded the city and, just as quickly, have disappeared from it, as if sucked out through an invisible funnel. Slowly, and with the help of a daily newspaper put out by a man named Luka Sims, the remaining inhabitants realize that something strange is happening on Earth: A fast-moving plague, known as “the Blinks,” has decimated much of the world’s population, with strange effects on this afterworld. One day Sims wakes up and finds himself nearly alone in the city of the dead.

Intertwined with the story of the dead is the story of the still-living Laura Byrd, a “wildlife specialist” and employee of Coca-Cola, who has been sent to work in a remote part of Antarctica as part of a highly conceptual PR campaign. (In this imagined future, terrorism is rampant and bio-warfare is a constant concern. Antarctica, which is melting, is owned partly by Coca-Cola.) An accident leaves Laura and her companions unable to communicate with their home base, and, slowly running out of provisions, they wait for someone to notice that they’ve gone off the grid: “The wind had been blowing for twenty-three days. … The heating panels were obviously breaking down,if not crippled beyond repair.” After Laura’s companions set off to find help and don’t return, she realizes she must make a dangerous trip across the ice by herself, in search of help. Most of this thread concerns her arduous expedition on a motorized sled—a version of the Shackleton expedition—during which she reflects on her life:

The snow blew off the rises, leaving bald patches of slippery ice, but long drifts built up in the depressions, and made the shelf seem more level than it really was. There were multitudes of people in her thoughts, multitudes behind her. Her mother and father. Her extended family. … The people she saw every few days at the grocery store or at the bank, and the people who lived in her apartment building. … Though she knew she was alone, there was a part of her that refused to accept it.

Though The Brief History of the Dead may resemble science fiction, Brockmeier’s interests are very different from those that animate most science-fiction writers. Science fiction often tends toward allegorical tidiness (despite the alien quality of the landscape) or toward a fetishization of the alien. But like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, this novel turns to sci-fi futurism to capture something about how foreign our near future might look to us. Brockmeier isn’t interested in spinning out the intricacies of an alternate universe (or even in indicting capitalism). He is interested in metaphysical puzzles and riddles—in following an idea to its furthest extreme in order to confront us with a feeling of estrangement from the known. Like Kafka, he examines a metaphor until it becomes literal. And so the figurative notion that the dead “live on in our memories” becomes, in The Brief History of the Dead, a literal fact. As more and more of the city’s dead disappear, the few remaining inhabitants gradually realize that they continue to exist because one person alive remembers them: Laura Byrd. The tension between the graceful simplicity of the conceit and the horrific unreality of the worldwide destruction it implies is galvanizing.

The two threads here are as archetypal as they come—a mythological depiction of the afterlife, and an arctic survival story—but together they add up to a peculiarly original meditation on what memory means to us, much the way Chris Marker’s extraordinary film La Jetée (1962) did. In both, the pursuit of memory is itself the central quest, the thing that can save the world from annihilation. Small details become resonant, inflected with meaning:

The man who lit the gas lamps in the theater district remembered taking a can of beans from the middle of a supermarket display pyramid and feeling a flicker of pride and then a flicker of amusement at his pride when the other cans did not fall. Andreas Andreopoulos, who had written code for computer games for the whole forty years of his adult life, remembered leaping to pluck a leaf from a tree, and opening a fashion magazine to smell the perfume inserts, and writing his name in the condensation on a glass of beer. They preoccupied him—these formless, almost clandestine memories. They seemed so much heavier than they should have been, as if they were where the true burden of his life’s meaning lay.

The Book of the Dead ingeniously investigates how mythology or fantasy can reshape the way we think about memory. But many novels that are meant to induce a state of wonder suffer from a certain static quality. (Wonder is perhaps better suited to poetry, or, possibly, to short sketches like those of Italo Calvino.) Brockmeier’s obsession with metaphors means that his writing can seem airless at times, as if we’ve been taken inside a glass-blown object, where everything is finely wrought but nothing can breathe or move. The Brief Historyof the Dead certainly suffers from this a bit. It trails off just where you might expect a dramatic turn in events. The final stage of Laura’s journey is surrealistic and febrile—less clear, and more predictable, than much of the prose that preceded it.

But maybe the lack of plot pyrotechnics is precisely the point. This is a story, after all, about the stories that will no longer be told; a story about the end of a world, which necessarily leaves one feeling disappointed. Even so, Brockmeier’s vision is essentially compassionate and humanistic. The world comes to an end because man is debased and hubristic, perhaps, but it also comes to an end only after heroic—and perhaps deluded—efforts have been made on its behalf. But—Brockmeier seems to argue—these efforts are what collectively constitute our memories. As it turns out, the city of the dead itself is a being, with a pulsing heart that can be hauntingly heard by its inhabitants; no one knows whose it is, or where it comes from. Perhaps it is Laura’s heart; perhaps it is the collective heart. Whatever the case, when the novel ends, we are reminded that fantastical inventions can’t go on forever and that all histories are, in their way, brief.