The Brief History of the Dead: A Novel

The Brief History of the Dead: A Novel by Kevin Brockmeier. Pantheon, 2006; $22.95; 252 pages.


"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.


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.



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."

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