Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Brief History of the Dead

By Kevin Brockmeier

From the very first line I was hooked into the story, a story that takes place in the city of the dead and in Antarctica.

When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had traveled across a desert of living sand.

The city is the place people go after they have died. They remain there as long as someone who is living keeps their memory alive. When that person dies they cross over into the next phase, perhaps heaven.

When in the city you remain the same age you were when you died. The city looks like any other city with restaurants, commercial buildings, transportation, myriad small businesses, recreation areas and places of religious observance. Families may be reunited and friends meet old friends who have died years before.

The second story takes place in Antarctica. Laura Byrd and two other Coca-Cola employees are stranded there without knowledge of what is happening in the rest of the world.

The events we see happening today—warming of the planet —has resulted in the melting of the polar ice caps. Coca-Cola wants to use the water from the Antarctica for its soft drink. Because the nations of the world are involved in biological terrorism there's a logical fear of the water supply being polluted.

When Laura and the two other employees are unable to communicate with their corporate headquarters after their "antenna splintered free of the satellite dish--" and when no one tries to communicate with them, the two men head out to the Ross shelf where there's an expedition studying the migratory habits of penguins. When they don't return after three weeks, Laura fits out a sledge and heads out to the Ross Shelf expedition.

In the rest of the world a lethal virus is released and people all over the globe are dying.

Neither of these two "realms" knows anything about the other realm. Laura does not initially know of all the deaths.

As more and more people die most of the city's population disappears. Laura Byrd's parents are in the city and they are looking for Laura. In time Laura is the only living person left on earth. Only those people Laura remembers remain in the city. Not only does the population diminish but soon the boundaries of the city shrink.

The remaining people all have interesting ties to Laura, whether it was a third grade friend, a teacher at the university with whom she had a summer romance, the blind man, the "preacher" carrying signs with words from the Bible. What is especially intriguing is how these people respond so differently to their new environment.

Laura upon reaching the expedition site and finding a journal pieces together the story of what has happened in the world. She understands that the mounds outside the hut are burial grounds for the expedition crew.

One of the themes in this novel concerns memory and the role it plays in our lives and in the retelling of our stories. In many respects this is a “cautionary” story. It is also a tale of connections.

The ending of the story recreates the beginning when we read of the crossing and how it is experienced.

A quote in the preface creates a doorway to The Brief History of the Dead the quote tells of African societies that believe that humans pass from being alive to living-dead to dead. The living-dead remain so and pass on to the dead when the "last person to know an ancestor dies."

I'll reread this book.

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