The Brief History of the Dead
By Kevin Brockmeier
Pantheon, 252 pp., $22.95
Most cultures accept the fact of death by constructing a reality that evades it: the concept of an afterlife, the balancing of accounts by reincarnation, the resurrection of memory and thus of the life itself. All of these are challenging notions, of course -- the architecture of heaven has proved particularly flummoxing. But a little creative fiddling has always seemed preferable to the alternative. Better we should be wandering in a parallel universe, whether purgatory or Middle-Earth, than condemned to dust that has no meaning beyond loss.
Kevin Brockmeier displayed his bravery for such subjects in his previous novel, ''The Truth About Celia," which beautifully traced the emotional arc of a father who had lost his child. ''The Brief History of the Dead" is more far-flung in its imaginative leaps, going so far as to construct a world of recently departed souls as well as the reason that has placed them there. It is both an evocative novel and a fanciful one, both spooky and riveting. The world left behind is sometime in the late 21st century, a place of global pandemics and the final ubiquitous triumph of
So, to hell in a handbasket, in other words, but fortunately for the plot of the novel, the trains are still running on time to a place called ''the city" -- a painless, mostly pleasant realm on the other side of a desert that all the dead must cross. Their crossings are ''as varied and elaborate as their ten billion lives": One woman is turned into snow on her journey, another remembers swimming through a heartbeat surrounded by shoals of brilliant fish. Once they arrive in the city, they set up shop: A former journalism professor finds whatever news is fit to print and publishes a free broadsheet. A blind man finds his way around by means of his enhanced other senses. One fellow achieves his lifelong dream of opening a little cafe, where lots of city inhabitants linger. All of them are here, it seems, not as a final destination but rather to inhabit a way station of memory. So long as they are tethered to the earth by a living person's archives, they will stay in the city. As long as, say, your grocer remembers you, or your spouse, or the child who beat you up in fifth grade, you'll hang around this quiet zone, wrapped in the corporeal cloak of human consciousness. But once you've been forgotten -- well, that finality is what ''The Brief History of the Dead" is all about.
We obviously need one earthbound protagonist for such a tale, and Brockmeier has given us an Everywoman named Laura Byrd -- a young wildlife specialist who's been sent to the Antarctic on a research mission by Coca-Cola. Having outmarketed even the world water supply, now the soft-drink behemoth is trying to convert the polar ice cap; on the ultimate feasibility study, Laura and a couple of corporate flacks have been sent to a slipshod facility a thousand or more miles from human contact. That means they haven't yet contracted the virus, but their equipment has failed and, after a blown rescue effort by the two men, Laura is on her own. She has a thermal tent and a global positioning system, as well as enough pluck to combat fear and subzero temperatures. The greater terror, though, is whether anything is left on earth for her to get to or to live for.
''The Brief History of the Dead" unfolds in cross-cutting narratives, one the ongoing stories of the interconnected souls in the city, the other of Laura trying to make her way across the ice cap toward a deserted radio station. The Antarctic sections are rendered in fierce detail, so that Laura's story becomes an emotionally grounded adventure tale -- it's testament to her depth as a character that some part of the reader wants her to survive, even as we realize that the world itself has ended. The city narratives of the novel are more problematic, perhaps a victim of their own success. Brockmeier has realized his city of the dead with arresting clarity, but there's something odd, or slightly woozy, about getting involved with a bunch of ghostly transients. We know that they're on their way someplace else, and we learn soon enough that the reason they're here at all is because they knew Laura, even tangentially. That makes for an interesting construct, but not for a psychologically convincing cast. They may simply have too much competition from the shiny, fourth-dimension city that their creator has built for them to live in.
What's memorable and moving about Brockmeier's novel are the pieces of consciousness that form the life and then outlive it: the woman who rarely smiles, for fear of revealing too much emotion -- who suspects that real life is ''just a solitude waiting to be transfigured." Or the man who looks back to realize that chasing down a balloon for a child may be the best thing he ever did. The notion, in other words, that the goodness we keep within us is a tapestry of mitzvahs -- moments and colors and kindnesses that give us the heavenly palette to look back upon at the end. Laura's own exquisite eulogy, delivered to herself in her Arctic sleep, is sensible and courageous and therefore enviable: Not forever, but long enough. ''The Brief History of the Dead" is about world enough and time: about the elusive tug and grasp of memory, the cruel moments transcended or transformed, and the better ones held close.
Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at email@example.com.