Brockmeier, Kevin. The Brief History of the Dead. New York: Pantheon, 2006; Vintage 2007.
Reviewed by Rebecca Stuhr
This futuristic tale forsees the end of the human race both living and dead, or perhaps more precisely, the living-dead. Brockmeier alternates the chapters of his novel between their two worlds. The City of the living-dead resembles a city on earth—filled with public transportation, buildings, restaurants, shops, and people from all walks of life. There is pain, happiness, love, and loneliness, but there is no aging or death. People cross over from life into death, and at some point disappear. As the novel begins, a sudden upsurge in the population is followed by a sudden evacuation of the population. It slowly becomes clear to those left in the city that many of them have something in common—and that is that they knew or were known by Laura Byrd. Laura Byrd, as it turns out, may be the sole surviving human on earth. She is sent to Antarctica to conduct a wild-life survey with two other Coca-Cola scientists just before an über-virus sweeps through earth’s human population. Back in Antarctica, Laura finds herself alone and suddenly without electricity or heat. Laura makes two superhuman journeys through the sub-zero temperatures, ice and snow of Antarctica in an attempt to reconnect with her world beyond the South Pole. Brockemeier relied on Ice: Stories of Survival from Polar Exploration (edited by Chris Willis) and Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World for his detailed depiction of Laura Byrd’s Antarctic travels. The details of her journey are horrifying and fascinating and unimaginable (unless you’ve read Nicola Davies's Extreme Animals ….see below)
Besides the intriguing notion of a life after death through the memory of the living, Brockmeier’s future realizes many of the fears we live with today, including climate change, bio-terrorism, and unethical, undisciplined, and uncontrolled corporate behavior. But, along side Brockmeier’s dystopia, there is also a benevolent view of our human need for each other, our ability to nurture and sustain each other, and, even as we seem hell-bent on destryong ourselves, our very will to live and our love for life. Although this is not a light-hearted novel by any means, there are humorous moments. And despite the bleakness of a world pandemic and the annihilation of the human race, Brockmeier's prose evokes beauty and peace. Finally, not to make light of Byrd’s epic struggle, but this reviewer can’t help but wish that Laura Byrd had read up on how penguins huddle together to survive the Antarctic temperatures (see review of Nicola Davies's book on Extreme Animals below) before heading off on her sledge. It’s a fact that might have come in handy when her last heating coil gave way.
Brockmeier is also the author of The Things that Fall from the Sky published in 2002 by Pantheon Books. 1st floor PS3602.R63 T48 2002.