The Brief History of the Dead: A Novel by Kevin Brockmeier. Pantheon, 2006; $22.95; 252 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
"Remember me when I'm gone" just took on a whole new meaning. The City is inhabited by the recently departed, who reside there only as long as they remain in the memories of the living. Among the current residents of this afterlife are Luka Sims, who prints the only newspaper in the City, with news from the other side; Coleman Kinzler, a vagrant who speaks the cautionary words of God; and Marion and Phillip Byrd, who find themselves falling in love again after decades of marriage.
On Earth, Laura Byrd is trapped by extreme weather in an Antarctic research station. She's alone and unable to contact the outside world: her radio is down and the power is failing. She's running out of supplies as quickly as she's running out of time.
Kevin Brockmeier interweaves these two stories in a spellbinding tale of human connections across boundaries of all kinds. The Brief History of the Dead is the work of a remarkably gifted writer.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Publishers Weekly: A deadly virus has spread rapidly across Earth, effectively cutting off wildlife specialist Laura Byrd at her crippled Antarctica research station from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the planet's dead populate "the city," located on a surreal Earth-like alternate plane, but their afterlives depend on the memories of the living, such as Laura, back on home turf. Forced to cross the frozen tundra, Laura free-associates to keep herself alert; her random memories work to sustain a plethora of people in the city, including her best friend from childhood, a blind man she'd met in the street, her former journalism professor and her parents. Brockmeier (The Truth About Celia) follows all of them with sympathy, from their initial, bewildered arrival in the city to their attempts to construct new lives. He meditates throughout on memory's power and resilience, and gives vivid shape to the city, a place where a giraffe's spots might detach and hover about a street conversation among denizens. He simultaneously keeps the stakes of Laura's struggle high: as she fights for survival, her parents find a second chance for love -- but only if Laura can keep them afloat. Other subplots are equally convincing and reflect on relationships in a beautiful, delicate manner; the book seems to say that, in a way, the virus has already arrived.
USA Today: Brockmeier's roots in the tradition of science fiction and fantasy are evident, although in this relatively brief book, he reaches wider than merely charting the apocalypse. There are many levels, each interesting.
One is the fragile nature of human civilization. Another is the stunning number of people each mind holds in its memory bank.
Still one more is the "what next" question that humans have asked as long as they have had the capacity to wonder.
Comparison with Alice Sebold's 2002 bestseller, The Lovely Bones, is inevitable, offering as it did another view of life after death. Brockmeier's earlier novel, The Truth About Celia, touched some of the same elements of loss and imagination and renewal.
Ever since the first chapter of The Brief History of the Dead appeared in September 2003 as a magazine short story in the New Yorker, admirers have anticipated its publication. They won't be disappointed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
Kevin Brockmeier is the author of The Truth About Celia, Things that Fall from the Sky, and two children's novels, City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. His stories have appeared in many publications, including the New Yorker, McSweeney's, The Georgia Review, The Best American Short Stories, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and multiple editions of the O. Henry Prize Stories anthology. He is the recipient of a Nelson Algren Award, an Italo Calvino Short Fiction Award, a James Michener-Paul Engle Fellowship, three O. Henry Awards -- one of which was a first prize -- and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He has taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Kevin Brockmeier was relaxing in his apartment in Little Rock on a Friday afternoon when I phoned. He was about to embark on the fourth leg of his reading tour to promote two novels that have appeared within a month of one another: The Brief History of the Dead, a novel for adults, and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery, geared at 9-12 year olds. "So, tell me about your tour, first of all, if you will. Where are you going next week?"
"Next week, Bellingham and Seattle, Washington, followed by Los Angeles, followed by Charlottesville, Virginia."
Mr. Brockmeier describes himself as a "creature of routine," who finds travel challenging. In fact, this will be his first trip west of Little Rock. "The traveling itself is kind of hard for me. I just don't do very well when I'm away from home and my bed and everything I'm accustomed to. But the actual readings have been very nice."
"What do you pack to take with you?"
"Well, I pack very lightly no matter where I happen to be traveling, so, for my own purposes I just pack a few changes of clothing, some toiletries and a book to read, basically. But for the reading, I've got a little brief case that I bought for the purpose which has copies of each of the books I've published so far, along with a folder containing some new material, and some handouts in case anybody happens to be interested. I keep these constantly updated lists of my 50 favorite books, movies and albums. And I made a lot of copies of the books list, in particular, for the reading tour."
"What will you read your readers from your book?"
"What I've been reading from is the first chapter of The Brief History of the Dead. Usually, either the first quarter or half of that first chapter. And then sometimes, if my voice holds out and there seems to be the interest, I read a little bit from the new children's novel too."
"What's the response been so far?"
"Oh, it's been very nice. There have been enough people at every reading for it to feel comfortable for me to stand in front of them and present myself. And the questions have been pretty engaged too so it's been a good time."
"What kind of questions do people ask that surprise you?"
"Well, everywhere I've been, somebody or another has asked me about Coca-Cola. Whether I've been contacted by them, and whether I've had to sort through any legal difficulties. So that's one.
"I've also read at a few elementary schools and libraries for kids that have been on the tour, just from the children's book, and you never know what sorts of questions you're going to get from an audience like that. I had one boy ask me if I would put his name in my next book. And his name is Jesse Wren. Wren like the bird."
"Oh, what a great name."
"It's a great name so I told him I would. And wrote it down and he was very excited, but it was a mistake because 50 hands shoot up in the air and everybody [wanted] to tell me their name so that I can write it down and put it in the next book."
"Can you talk to me a little bit about how you devised the notion in The Brief History of the Dead of this, our world, and the 'other world' into which the dead pass? You quote, at the beginning of the book, from Lewin's account of several African societies having that belief. Is that where this idea came to you?"
"That's exactly where it came from. Lewin's discussion of it lasts no longer than the epigraph I've used in the book which is only a short paragraph. He talks about this African idea of the three terrains of existence; the living, the sascha and the zimani. The sascha are those who have died and not yet fallen out of living memory. The zimani are those who have died and have fallen out of living memory. Although there might still be some cultural lingering memory of them, there's nobody left in the world who actually encountered them.
"He uses the notion as a way of introducing the idea that high school history classes should take advantage of the testimony of people who were alive to live through some of the events they're talking about. But, to me, it just seemed like a really intriguing concept. I probably read his book six or seven years ago. But the notion lingered with me, and eventually, I decided that it would make a nice kernel for a larger piece of fiction."
"I was interested that there are figures from the past whom everyone knows, Shakespeare, Henry Ford, or Mahalia Jackson, for example, that don't make an appearance in 'The City.'"
"I guess I would say two things about that; one of them is that these past figures, no matter what their cultural currency might be, no longer remain in the memories of those who are still alive. In other words, there's nobody around who actually encountered those people. Even if we can speak about them with some authority, at least in the case of Mahalia Jackson and some of the more recent people. The other thing is that in constructing this world of 'the dead but not yet forgotten,' I made a deliberate decision not to incorporate celebrities into the population of the place. You know, those people wouldn't necessarily be there if you actually try to work through the ramifications of the idea through which The City is constructed. But, I just have the feeling that using those sorts of characters would make The City an uglier place than I would like it to be.
"It just seemed to -- I don't know -- kind of tarnish the purity of the notion. Or at least the notion as I wanted to play with it. And, so I just ignored them."
"I noticed that in 'The City,' as you call it, some people seem to redeem themselves and their relationships and other people continue to behave as deplorably as they did in the real world. I don't sense any sense of Christian moralizing or judgment about that."
"Well, I guess I would say that even the people who continue to behave deplorably in this world, chief among them I'm sure you're thinking about Lyndon Trimble, even if they're problem children in a way, still, I would never be willing to withhold my own affection from them. The first thing I'm trying to do is understand them and...I hope there's not a character in the book who fails to present something pretty close to the center of their own humanity. Which is what I try to do in all the fiction that I write."
"Did you grow up trotting off to church as a child?"
"I did. I was born and baptized Catholic and then raised and re-baptized Methodist. I went to a Church of Christ School for about nine years -- first through ninth grade. It's very much part of my own background. I would consider myself an agnostic today. But, I'm still very interested in religion and I still read a lot of theology and a lot of fiction about religious matters. So, it's...a part of my sense of what people seem to hold dear."
"There seem to be two camps of readers: 'the happily ever after,' and the folks who are fine with ambiguity. What is it, do you think, that causes some readers to need that sense of closure?"
"I think that with readers of any type of novel, or viewers of any type of film, encounterers of any type of story, you will find people who feel the need to have every question answered and every spool tied off. And you will find people who are willing to allow the story's shadowy places to speak to them just as much as those places that are well-lit. I'm one of the latter. The stories I've always liked best are the ones that seem to continue growing and asking new questions after I've finished reading them."
"I wanted The City to be, in some ways, a completely unique environment, but in some ways an extension of our own world; insofar as the people who live there are still left to wonder what comes next. What will the third terrain of existence be?"
"I didn't want to answer any of those sorts of questions definitively because I wanted The City to offer the possibility that that third realm of existence could be anything at all -- anything that we've ever been capable of imagining or anything that we've ever failed to imagine.
"One of the things I tried to do with The Brief History of the Dead was give the last couple chapters a real sensation of closure, and yet allow the mystery of that third terrain of existence, to survive."
"The first chapter of The Brief History of the Dead appeared in the New Yorker as a short story. At that time, were you already considering this as a full-length novel?"
"I was. I had written half the novel by the time the New Yorker published that first chapter. In all the longer pieces of fiction I've done, I've tried to construct the opening section or the first chapter as though it were a self-contained short story. First, as a way of easing myself into the book, but also as a way of ensuring that if the novel falls to pieces on me, at least, I'll have gotten a short story out of it. So, with The New Yorker piece, I had written that first chapter, and then, I had written all of the even-numbered chapters, the Laura chapters. And then the New Yorker published the first chapter, after which I went back and filled in the rest of the odd-numbered chapters."
"Amazing. What are you working on next that you can talk about?"
"I try to follow each book for adults with a book for children." [ Grooves: A Kind of Mystery was published by Katherine Tegen Books on March 1.]
"You've been compared to children's author Daniel Pinkwater. Where did you first encounter him?"
"Well, my favorite book when I was ten years old was Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy from Mars., by Daniel Pinkwater. I must have checked it out of the library half a dozen times. Then I forgot about the book, and years later I happened to re-encounter it. And I discovered that I still enjoyed it just as much today as I did when I was a child, only it revealed all sorts of more subversive currents that weren't apparent to me when I was little.
"I wouldn't have guessed that he was an influence on my adult fiction, but he's had a very direct influence on my children's fiction. Simply because I enjoy what he does so very much and have enjoyed it for so long.
"I love his sense of humor; I love the way that he incorporates these strange, fantastic events into the real everyday lives of his characters. And so, I'm trying to do a similar sort of thing with my children's books, definitely.
"I taught at the University of Iowa last semester as a visiting professor, and one of the classes I taught was a children's fiction workshop, and had them read a few books. By far, the most popular was Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater."
"There is a lot of talk these days about the failure of public education and that children are not able to read, do you observe that when students are talking with you about your writing?"
"Not at all. In fact, I'm always surprised by how astute children seem to be about the publishing process. Not only are they interested in books, but a lot of them seem to be interested in things like why it is that a hard cover will be published and you can't get the paperback until a year later. Or, how it is that an agent works."
"Weren't you also a student at the University of Iowa?"
"I was a student there from '95 to '97."
"What was it like coming back as the visiting writer-in-residence, rather than as a student?"
"Well, it was intimidating at first, frankly. First of all, because I'm still pretty young. [Mr. Brockmeier is 33 years old this year.] Younger than the rest of the faculty, definitely, and as young as many of the students. Iowa is a program that tends to skew kind of old. So a lot of the students are in their early 30s, or older. Some of them are fresh out of undergraduate school but that's the exception rather the rule there.
"Then, I just had so much admiration for some of the teachers who had taught me when I was there and it was hard for me to envision myself sitting in the same chair."
"Did you work with Frank Conroy when you were there?"
"I did. I worked with Frank Conroy and Marilynne Robinson. Those were the two whose guidance meant the most to me. Also, with James Alan McPherson and Judith Grossman."
"Were you there when Conroy passed away last year?"
"I was invited to teach as a direct result of the fact that he passed away. He would have been teaching the course I taught, you know, if he had still been around."
"What shoes to fill."
"Exactly. It's not as though anybody was really expecting me to fill those shoes. I was trepidatious about it, but after a week or two, I kind of settled into it and became much more comfortable with the whole idea and I feel as though I ended up really having something to offer to the students. I taught the two classes; the graduate fiction workshop that everybody teaches and then, 'a seminar of your own devising,' which in my case was a children's fiction workshop.
"With the children's fiction workshop, I felt a great deal more latitude from the very beginning, simply because nobody had ever taught a class like that there before. So, I knew that I could make it into whatever I wanted it to be. I also knew that my students in that particular class were really in the program to concentrate on their adult fiction. So that the children's fiction was kind of a separate stream for them. And it just made it easier for me to approach the material."
"What did you carry from your student days to your faculty days, in terms of approach or communication with young writers?"
"Well, there have always been some teachers at Iowa, Frank Conroy chief among them, who have not shied away from being abrasive when they don't like something. And I could never bring myself to do that, and still can't bring myself to do that. So, what I tried to do is just speak as honestly as I could about any given story and yet be as generous as I could with each of them as well. You know, try to understand what the writer is trying to do, and see if I can help them do it better than they would otherwise be able to.
"The few years before I had been teaching, I was just writing and doing nothing else. And I think one thing that teaching offered me was that I learned how to talk again. You know, when you spend an entire day sitting in front of the computer trying to get, say a page written, with every sentence exactly right, and then at the end of that day you try to converse with somebody, it can seem very strange because they are such different ways of dealing with language.
"But if you're in front of a roomful of students, and you know you have to communicate with them, you learn again how to improvise language in a way that's easy to forget when you're actually writing."
I asked Mr. Brockmeier to tell me about his family.
"I've got my mother and my father, both of whom have divorced and remarried, and one younger brother, who has himself married and sired one boy. And I had three living grandparents for most of my life. I no longer have any. Two of them passed away within the past few weeks, actually.
"I found myself grieving over their loss in a way that was really unexpected for me because they were both very old, and we knew they were going to die soon.
"My grandfather, before he became completely incoherent, one of the last things he said was, he put his hand out to shake, and said to my mom, 'Well, I'm dying now. It was a pleasure knowing you.' So, I think of those as his last words."
"When, as a child, did you first encounter death?"
"I was five or six years old. I had a great uncle, Uncle Pete, who came to visit us in Little Rock, I think just because he was dying, and knew he was dying and he wanted to meet and be remembered by, the new generation.
"I had never known him before this particular visit, and never got to see him again. He died just a few short months later. It was very upsetting for me at the time. No subsequent death has been as upsetting to me as that one was."
"Does that experience resonate in your book at all?"
"Well, I think it does, but it only occurred to me just now as we were talking about it."
"Who do you think, or who do you hope, will be the last person on earth that remembers you?"
"Well, I would hope that it'll be somebody I meet decades and decades from now. Otherwise, if I were to pass away tomorrow, and if everybody I have known continues to live until they're 80 years old, let's say, then it would be my nephew who's two years old now. He would be the likeliest candidate. If I were never to see my nephew again, I will have completely slipped from his conscious memory, but as the book is constructed, anybody that you're capable of remembering is somebody who would continue to reside in this land of the dead but not yet forgotten, until you pass away. And I think at the very least, he would be capable of remembering me, if the right chain of thoughts happened to pass through his mind."