Thursday, June 01, 2006

Welcome to the City of the Dead

In a not so distant future a deadly virus called the Blinks rapidly kills off every human being on earth. The lone survivor, a wildlife specialist named Laura Byrd sent on an expedition to the South Pole, finds herself stranded and alone. These are just the opening pages in Kevin Brockmeier’s unusual novel The Brief History of the Dead (the companion website is also really interesting with interactive maps and character bios).

We quickly learn that the dead move on to another life in a fantastic city on another plane of existence; there the dead live out a second life free from aging and disease until every person on earth that remembers them dies. The chapters of the novel alternate between Laura and the city of the dead, the latter giving us not just pieces of the touching backgrounds of the dead but often how they connect to Laura. The residents of the city-showcasing everything from a religious zealot who uses the afterlife to support his beliefs to the former newspaperman whose life's passion is turning every incident into a wacky headline–provide countless layers of theme, thought and levity to the narrative. The elegiac, thoughtful tone of the city is balanced out by Laura’s adventure-filled travels across the frozen landscapes of the South Pole as she hopelessly searches for signs of any other survivors.

A crisis develops in the city of the dead when the ones who remain finally realize that the only reason they continue to exist is that Laura still fights for her own life on earth. The very city itself begins to fade away, thrusting age old questions of the meaning of life and death back into their hearts and minds. The back-and-forth chapter rhythm does get a little wearing, especially since Laura’s realistically developed adventures (based pretty heavily on the Ernest Shakleton expedition of 1914) read more compellingly than some of the sections on the imaginative city of the dead.

Brockmeir’s style, with its elements of fantasy mixed with a strong sense of character and a wonderfully lyrical ear, reminded me a lot of David Mitchell, author of the immensely popular novel Cloud Atlas. Although lacking some of the far-reaching depth of Mitchell, Brockmeir’s haunting and reflective reminder of how connected each person is to another will appeal to readers of fantasy yearning for a bit more depth than the normal fare.


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