Kevin Brockmeier, The Brief History of the Dead. John Murray (UK) / Random House (US), 2006. Pp 272. ISBN 0719568188. £12.99 / $22.95.

Reviewed by Jodee Stanley

The afterlife: is there any other single mystery that holds a stronger fascination? In The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier uses the simple question of "Where do we go when we die" as a springboard for his haunting, intricate imagining of an existence beyond this one—an existence that is also only temporary, leaving still unanswered the question of what lies beyond.

The Brief History of the Dead opens with in the vast, borderless City of the Dead, which the departed reach by way of "crossing over," each person's crossing being as individual as the proverbial snowflake. In the City, the dead have become accustomed to a similar way of living here in the afterlife as they had on earth; they work, they have friends, they fall in love, marry—there is no procreation, but there is a semblance of life that is satisfying, and that lasts, for most people, for a significant number of years. After some length of time, a person will simply disappear, into whatever plane (if any) comes next.

Only now, in the City, people have started disappearing en masse without explanation. Among those survivors of the disappearing dead is Luka Sims, a journalist in life who has returned to his vocation after reaching the afterlife via a fatal car accident. Luka runs the City of the Dead's only newspaper, the Sims Sheet, reporting on news of interest from both the City and the world of the living; when the mass disappearances begin, he tracks this story as well, though for a brief time it seems as if he may be the only one left to read it. Just as he's come to believe he's the last soul in the City, he meets up with a blind man, and then a woman he will fall in love with. The three of them make their way across the abandoned City streets until a gunshot calls them, along with the other remaining dead, to the City's Monument District. Here, the few thousand remaining inhabitants settle to re-form their society and wait to see what happens next.

The situation echoes any number of apocalyptic tales where plague or some other disaster wipes out most of the population, leaving a few survivors to resurrect civilization. In this case, though, there is no need to, nor even a way to, repopulate or rebuild—there is only the mystery of what's happening, and why.

What's happened is this: down among the living, a plague actually has wiped out the world's population, with apparently a single exception: Laura Byrd, a wildlife specialist stationed in Antarctica on a research expedition sponsored by the Coca-Cola Corporation. Abandoned and unaware of the devastation elsewhere in the world, Laura sets out alone on a fuel-cell-powered sledge toward another research station. As her last days unfold and she struggles to stay alive in the bitter Antarctic wilderness, her mind sustains itself with memories—some noteworthy, others seemingly insignificant. Meanwhile, the citizens of the City slowly piece together why they still remain when others have disappeared.

Not surprisingly, the two threads are connected, and in weaving them together, Brockmeier explores the wonderful randomness and vastness of human memory. It may be something you've never considered before—certainly I've never considered it—the sheer numbers of individuals one encounters, even touches, in life, and how each of those encounters is stored away in the limitless vaults of memory where it can potentially be accessed if necessary, when context demands it, or sometimes for no apparent reason at all. At one point in the novel a character tries to make lists and estimate how many people he knew, fleetingly or deeply, during the course of his life before the afterlife. The number he arrives at is 50,000, which he feels may be a great underestimate. The actual figure, he suspects, is more likely closer to 70,000. Another character refuses to believe this, that the number could be so high, but as we grow to know the remaining population of the City of the Dead and see how each of them is linked to the others, we begin to comprehend how that number could truly be accurate, and what's more, we begin to contemplate how connected we are to the world.

Brockmeier flirts with other interesting ideas in Brief History—the novel is set in a near-future in which corporations like Coca-Cola and Bertelsmann have free reign over the world and employ outrageous but not-that-farfetched "guerilla marketing" campaigns. Fear of terrorism has taken over in a new kind of Red scare, with warning sirens and orange-vested security troops so commonplace they have become almost invisible. It's an amusing but recognizable world, and it makes the plague, when it happens, and how it happens, utterly believable.

But the real heart of the novel is concerned not so much with our outer world, as with our inner life—specifically, our relationships with one another, how we take them for granted, and yet how they come back to us, and affect us, at one point or another, in ways we don't even necessarily understand. How we exist in this world, and beyond it, is determined in many ways by how we are seen and understood by others. To live on in the minds of others is, after all, a kind of immortality, and this has been illustrated quite beautifully in The Brief History of the Dead.

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