The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier begins with an intriguing premise. When we die, no great mysteries are solved. We end up in a large city, a type of holding area, where we remain for a specific time – as long as there are people in the real world that remember us. Then we move on. As the book jacket helpfully points out, this adds all new meaning to “remember me when I’m gone.”
It’s a nice thought. Families and friends are reunited in the City, just as they were in the real world. Friends wait for each other to arrive at the local watering hole, and pool games resume where they left off. After the initial shock of being dead, people seem to get back to normal life pretty quickly. As people are forgotten in the real world over time, they move on to the next place. Whatever that may be. The population of the city ebbs and flows as the real world suffers disease, famine, and war.
Interwoven with this idea of an afterlife is a plot line in the real world. A deadly epidemic begins to sweep through the real world, and a group of scientists are on a research mission in Antarctica. The Coca-Cola Corporation (headquartered in Atlanta) plays a role in each of these scenarios. The escalating events in the real world begin to have an impact in the next world of the city.
On the whole, I found the parts of the book that focus on the city are wonderfully imagined and romantic. The parts of the book that centered on the real world seemed less plausible somehow. Since communication between the worlds does not exist, I think the book may have worked better as a mystery to be solved by the inhabitants of the city as they wrestle with the problem of their rapidly dwindling population. That the inhabitants of the city were powerless to do anything about it from their end would heighten their suspense. Or something.
However, my main problem with the book (I had a similar problem with Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go) is that the book shirked the nuts and bolts of its basic premise, raising unanswered questions that I think would have made for a better book. The city appears to be inhabited only by Westerners, and English speaking Westerners at that. Do the Quebecois end up in another city? Do African villagers end up in a parallel-world savanna? Is George Washington still around in the city? Plato? Or is the city reserved for people remembered by their contemporaries? Do people band together when their “rememberer-in-common’s” memory begins to go, wondering who will be the last to cling to a fading memory? Is the quality of life in the city related to the strength of the memories in the real world? And on and on.
The book is based upon a short story published in the New Yorker, which ultimately became its first chapter. The short story is excellent, and it reflects the best aspects of this book. In my opinion, the book doesn’t realize the full potential of that short story, becoming bogged down in world-wide pandemics and Antarctic exploration. There are many reviews that believe otherwise, however.