THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD
By Kevin Brockmeier
Pantheon. 252 pp. $22.95
"Which do you like better," one characters asks another in The Brief History of the Dead , "the idea of the past or the idea of the future?" In Kevin Brockmeier's modest but inventive novel, we have both: a story set in the near future where people seem always turning to small moments from their past. They exist, all but one, in an afterlife called the City.
The City looks like a European capital filled with Americans -- think Prague. It even has "movie theaters, gymnasiums, hardware stores, karaoke bars, basketball courts, and falafel stands." Brockmeier does a wonderful job of conjuring up the dead as they move about in this familiar setting: "They might go weeks and months without thinking of the houses and neighborhoods they had grown up in, their triumphs of shame and glory." A rumor claims that they exist only as long as they are remembered by living people on Earth -- about 60 years or so -- and then they disappear from this kind of second life.
But as the novel starts, the city is beginning to empty alarmingly fast. Some citizens, like the newspaperman Luka Sims, a young woman named Minny and a blind man, fear they may be the last of the dead. Slowly, we hear rumors that a virus has been sweeping the Earth. (" 'What happened to you?' Luka asks Minny. 'The same thing that happened to everyone else,' she said. 'The Blinks.' ") Meanwhile, on Earth, a research scientist named Laura Byrd is all alone in Antarctica, trying to fix a communications malfunction after her colleagues have left to seek help. One of the great pleasures of reading this novel is slowly coming to the realization that those remaining in the City are all remembered by one person: Laura Byrd. Just as they are the last of the dead, she is the last of the living.
It's a striking premise and, for much of the novel, deftly told through hints and rumors. But as Brockmeier alternates between Laura's story of survival in Antarctica and the daily lives in the afterlife, he uses Laura's memories as a transition between the two worlds. As Tolstoy said, art is in the transitions, and here Brockmeier's seams are showing. Just after Laura survives a harrowing accident, we hear that "for reasons that were inexplicable to her, she began thinking about the small neighborhood park that was located just down the street from her apartment."
Inexplicable indeed; it's an unlikely survival instinct. Similarly, after a major disappointment on the ice, Laura "couldn't help thinking of the secret fortress she had played in the summer she was ten years old." Disappointingly, the memories that follow these sudden flashes illuminate little about Laura; their sole purpose is to connect to characters in the afterlife, to prove they are remembered. These now-dead characters, however, are no more deeply developed; some, like a God-fearing homeless man ("There was one part of him that believed that God truly was love"), verge on cliché. These small connective memories can add bones to characters, but Brockmeier keeps providing them, always with new characters, until the very last pages of the novel, a time when readers expect echoes, not introductions.
But the storytelling can be thrilling, particularly in the Antarctica section (taken from real explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard's memoir), and the writing is often clever. ("Dying had changed Marion Byrd.") Just as often, however, Brockmeier loses his nerve and hands us a diary spelling out events we would have enjoyed piecing together, or he fills a page with description that illuminates neither character nor theme ("She watched Phillip drink the last of his coffee and return the spoon to his cup with a tiny clink, pushing them both to the side of the table" and so on.) Such elongations can stretch a novel too thin. What we long for is feeling.
Brockmeier has teased some intriguing new ideas out of the last-man-on-Earth genre -- especially tying in the fate of the afterlife to the fate of those living -- but he has missed out on the great beauty of imaginative literature: metaphor. When we read José Saramago's The Stone Raft , a novel about the Iberian Peninsula floating off from Europe, we are faintly aware that we are talking about something more than geography. But The Brief History of the Dead rarely feels larger than the pages in your hands. Brockmeier gets close when describing some penguins Laura comes across: "The ones that didn't have eggs were balancing egg-sized lumps of ice there, dead little worlds that they protected as avidly as though they were real." This image at last echoes what should be the center of the book: the hollow sadness of memory. A big-titled novel about the afterlife and the dead is an opportunity for such sublime imagery; it is also a trap for sentimentality, and Brockmeier has, perhaps too cautiously, chosen to avoid both. ·
Andrew Sean Greer's most recent novel is "The Confessions of Max Tivoli."