Blogs by Bill Brent
BOOK REVIEW -- The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier
3/17/2006 11:51:21 PM
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According to Kevin Brockmeier, it is not the meek who shall inherit the earth, but Antarctica's Emperor penguins, lots of them. It makes sense, once the whales are extinct –- all that extra krill floating around unclaimed.
In his imaginative, sometimes insightful novel, Brockmeier offers us an extended meditation on the notion of a three-tiered life / afterlife cycle, which apparently derives from the belief system of certain African societies. Within this construct, the recently dead inhabit a sort of limbo-town, which they do not leave as long as there is one person left on Earth who remembers them. The novel alternates chapter by chapter within these two realms.
There is deep pathos and irony aplenty in the struggle of trapped heroine Laura Byrd (named after famed Antarctic explorer Richard Byrd?) to survive and reconnect to other humans in a melting world where all discernible signs of human life have been suddenly lost, yet whose buildings and answering systems remain intact. The central problem with the novel is that its conclusion assumes a sort of inevitability early on, and thus, aside from a plausible yet unlikely Deus ex machina, the remainder of the novel hinges on Brockmeier's ability to keep us engaged in his characters while they wait for eternity or oblivion to arrive.
It's a difficult task, one he mostly succeeds at, though largely due to the novelty of his premise. Laura and her struggle are at once heroic and mundane (in both senses of the latter word), and I found myself alternately empathizing with the heroine and viewing her predicament with a fascinated detachment. This is one eerie book. Brockmeier's skillful handling of Laura's character and his slow disclosure of the absurdity leading up to the abrupt pandemic keep his narrative from lapsing into mere bathos.
On the other hand, Brockmeier's "brief history" is perhaps a bit too brief. I wanted to learn more about the folks on both sides of the divide, in particular the characters in the afterlife city. Several are baldly unpleasant, and the brief timespan of the novel offers them few discernible opportunities for change or growth. This reduces many of Brockmeier's characters to single-chapter vignettes, and there is little meaningful interaction or through line, which gives his novel a stark, nearly static quality at times. More, perhaps, about the history between Laura's parents, who fall in love again once reunited in the city of the dead, would have endowed this novel with a richer humanity. We learn little about their relationship with their daughter, upon whom their own future finally depends.
Thus, while his premise is a thought-provoking and, well, novel meditation on the possible demise of our species, it sometimes lacks emotional depth. In this, he echoes, though perhaps unwittingly, the searing chill of Laura's Antarctic journey in the characters that populate his city.
As an aside, I would have enjoyed seeing Brockmeier's vivid imagination tackle the topic of "immortal life" as per Shakespeare et al. who, while no longer remembered personally by anyone alive, are woven into the warp and woof of our collective consciousness to such an extent that they continue to shape human existence many centuries after their demise.
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