Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Brief History of the Dead Redux

I have been madly in love with this book since I read it after it first came out and I try to handsell it like crazy (though clearly I can't do it while I'm at a camp in the WI Northwoods). Anyhow, I came across this profile of it on Nancy Pearl's list today on NPR and this is a great summary. Just thought it would be something to be aware of. The last paragraph sums it all up perfectly.

It's difficult to do a precis of Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead. First of all, it sounds depressing, which it isn't, really. Secondly, it's one of those novels that's simply unique; I can't think of another story that's even similar. The plot, laid bare, is this: There's a worldwide epidemic due to an out-of-control synthetic virus that is inexorably leading to the end of humankind.

Sounds like a thriller, right? But the plot itself is almost incidental to the book's theme, which really concerns the quite literal power of memory. In the world of this novel, when someone dies, they go to some other, intermediate place, where they remain so long as there is someone alive who remembers them. When they no longer exist in the memory of anyone living, they disappear.

But again, Brockmeier doesn't mean this metaphorically -- in this intermediate place are ordinary people living their quotidian lives, publishing newspapers, falling in love, regretting the past, anticipating the future. In alternating chapters, we also get the story of Laura Byrd, who's part of a scientific team in the Antarctic. How these two seemingly disparate stories intersect gradually unfolds as the novel progresses. This is the kind of book you'll find yourself thinking about long after you've gone on to other novels. The writing is masterful, the ideas are provocative, and, all in all, this is a stunning achievement.

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