Review: The Brief History of the Dead

Kevin Brockmeier (2006)

The story begins with an interesting premise: When a person dies, they cross over to a parallel universe known as The City, where they remain as long as they live in the memory of someone back on Earth. When there is no one left on Earth who remembers the deceased, that person disappears from The City, moving on to the next big thing. Or not. That’s just one of the many mysterious puzzle pieces that make up Kevin Brockmeier’s promising but ultimately unfulfilled fantasy fiction.

As one character figures it, a person can conceivably list 50,000 people in their lifetime that they remember, thereby ensuring each of them a place in The City. Everyone from your children, grandchildren, coworkers, childhood friends, friends of friends, to the more obscure like the kindly elderly woman next door who gave you candy as a kid, the people in the yoga class you took six years ago or the homeless man you passed every day for years on your way to work. It’s a fascinating alternate reality to contemplate.

Inhabitants of The City go on about their lives much in the same way as they did when alive. They might be reunited with family, friends, and coworkers. They might meet new people, form new routines, take a new job, or fall in love. The population of The City has been fairly constant for as long as anyone there can remember, ebbing and flowing with the natural course of life and death on Earth. But things are beginning to change. Set in the not-so-distant future, planet Earth has been wracked by war, global warming, terrorist attacks, rampant globalization, and the mass-extinction of all mammals, save man. Now, a killer virus, possibly man-made, is sweeping the globe. An increase in the death toll translates to fewer and fewer souls in The City.

In a parallel storyline, back on Earth, a research team in Antarctica is cut off from the outside world. Biologist Laura Byrd is stranded at a remote outpost and when it becomes apparent that help isn’t coming, hers becomes a riveting survival story. How will she get to the base station and when she does, what will she find there? Above all, how is Laura the key to what’s going on in The City?

Bouncing back and forth between this world and that, Brockmeier weaves these threads together. It’s fun putting the puzzle together, learning the intricacies of life in The City, and uncovering the crucial role Laura plays in the lives of others. Unfortunately, the story loses steam, failing to rise above the clever set-up until it fizzles out in a predictable and underwhelming conclusion. The prose is serviceable and uninspiring. Promising characters, introduced with brief but telling episodes from their pasts and colorful crossing-over experiences, are never fleshed out. They remain two-dimensional and ultimately dispassionate, a feeling that extended to this reader by the end of the book.

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