tangents & minutiae

musings of one who is easily distracted

Month: July, 2011

The Brief History of the Dead

I’ve just finished Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead last night. It’s based on an interesting premise that there is a city where the dead go after they die. There, they maintain an existence similar to that of the living with jobs, businesses and relationships. This lasts so long as there is someone living that remembers them. When there are no more people to remember them, they disappear from the city and no one knows where they’ve gone. The dead are reunited with family and friends and periodic disappearances are a regular occurrence. One day, scores of people begin arriving and others disappearing. Some arrivals disappear within days, and the city begins to empty to the point that those who remain gather together into a single district while the rest of the city is empty. From the arrivals they figure out that there was a worldwide pandemic that was quick acting and 99.9% fatal. The thousands of dead who remain try to figure out why they are still there and come up with a theory that they all must have encountered (and were remembered by)  a single person, Laura Byrd.

Laura’s story runs parallel with those of the denizens of the city. She was working for the Coca-Cola Corporation in Antarctica when she and her two colleagues lost communication with the corporation. Her colleagues decide to travel to another base studying Emperor penguins, but they don’t come back. As the resources in their hut start to run out, she decides to set out for the penguin base. The story focuses on her ordeal as she travels from one place to another in the brutal environment, hoping to contact the corporation first and after learning about the plague that seemed to have killed everyone (including the staff at the penguin base and her colleagues), anyone who might still be alive. As her body and spirit is brutalized by the cold, memories of various times and people in her life pop up, and Brockmeier’s narratives of the dead in the city start fitting into her memories like a puzzle.

Eventually, the dead begin to notice the city starting to vanish, leaving literally nothing behind. Streets, buildings and entire blocks start to disappear with increasing speed. At the same time, Laura is succumbing to the cold, and her reveries become hallucinations of travels very much like the tales told by the dead when they arrive in the city. We know she is dying. As the city shrinks, the remaining dead gather shoulder to shoulder in a park, waiting for the inevitable.

The novel presents an interesting dilemma, what responsibility does the living have toward the dead? Since we never know what happens to them after they disappear, their entire existence depends on Laura staying alive. At the same time, when a character’s life is in danger, as the reader, we tend to root for them to survive.* But Brockmeier puts the reader into a position of questioning exactly why we insist that she stay alive. Is it for her, to spend the rest of her existence entirely without human company in a frozen wasteland? Do we really want that for her? Everything points to the fact that she is the last of her kind, and every moment of her travail she is suffering. Why does she keep going? Why do we want her to?

I think it is because if she died, all the other people we have been reading about would disappear. As long as she kept dragging herself through the ice, we get to keep reading about them. Her ordeal is such that her final delusions, that her black, frostbitten extremities had healed and she walks nude through the ice and desert and back feeling no discomfort, are almost a blessing.  Yet I found myself mourning for the dead as their city evaporated around them and they wait for oblivion. Brockmeier makes the reader confront their fear of the unknown. Where do the dead go when they leave the city? We don’t know? Where will Laura go since there is no one alive to remember her? We don’t know.

By dying, Laura ended the dead’s existence in the city. By living, Laura pushed her body to its greatest limits in a desperate attempt to find someone else who survived the plague.

I finished the book feeling unsettled. How many dead people would I be responsible for?


*Unless this is a horror novel and they are annoying.


beginnings – tangent

When I was a child I had an infuriating habit of wandering off when I was shopping with my mother. She often threatened to buy one of those child-leashes when she finally found me. Walter Benjamin once wrote about his experiences shopping with his mother on the streets of Berlin. It was boring. He would pass the time by examining little things, scraps of paper, rocks, whatever he happened to find as he waited. I was the same way, but unlike Benjamin, a good little child who stayed by his mother, I would see something that interested me and wonder off to look at it. That would lead me to see something else, and something else, and soon I was out of sight. When I realized that I didn’t know my way back to my mom, I would sit down and wait for her to find me (which she always told me to do.) It usually didn’t take long, so I was never worried. I still do it now. It drives my husband Todd crazy the way I will wander off in a store, distracted by something I saw or something I remembered that I wanted to look at. I think he’s starting to consider a leash too.

My mind tracks the same way. My train of thought constantly goes off into different directions, to the point that it resembles one of those Family Circus comics of Billy’s path outlined in dashed lines.


Todd and I could be talking about the grocery list which made me think of a food I wanted that I shouldn’t have because I’m fat, which is because I’m not working out like I should, but to work out I need a new pair of gym shoes which I could buy at online but I should look up which one I wanted and Oh! I wanted to look up what kind of plants would be nice in the back garden but it’s been so hot I don’t really want to work out there and why is it so damn hot in the midwest? The humidity’s killing me and I wish I was back in Los Angeles where it is dry, Todd’s friend Mark still lives in Los Angeles, has he sold his house yet? I remember shopping on Ventura Boulevard which wasn’t very far from UCLA where I went to grad school where we had an amazing library. which I miss because Bradley University’s library is so bad with that incompetent inter-library loan clerk who cannot even read enough french to get the article I wanted, even though I gave her the exact URL. I need to finish reading those library books so I can return them on time, are some books still waiting in my mailbox at work? Do I want to go to campus and find out? The gym is on campus, I wish I went there more often but at least I have my ballet classes. Have I updated my ballet blog lately? Will I lose readers after so long? Why do they even read my blog? Now the Adult Beginner, her blog is really funny. She’s starting on pointe shoes. Why are they always pink? Do I want to go en pointe someday? I like my practice shoes. I wish Todd would put up the barre in my room for me, but it’s full of suitcases. All this would happen in a matter of seconds.

Then I’d say “could you put the suitcases away for me?” Sometimes I have to explain to Todd how I got from groceries to suitcases.

It’s sad, really.



beginnings – minutiae

Other than buddhas and blank books, I love to look at and collect little things. Perhaps somewhere in my mind I think I will be like Joseph Cornell and assemble the random skeleton keys, slides, escutcheons, forceps, business stamps, paper fragments et cetera into some coherent whole. There is a fetish quality to these objects that I can hold in my hand. I have much more important objects, like the Sacagawea dollar my father gave me and the lucky rock he was carrying in his pocket when he died, a turquoise mala that my husband gave me, and a lighter case we bought during our honeymoon in Paris. I often credit my love for objects as why I am an art historian.

That’s what research is like for me, finding the reference that brings everything together, pulling the glimmers of ideas into my work together into something new. Everywhere I have collected quotes, phrases, and images. I have print-outs of articles and explanations of theories in massive binders in my office. Sure, you can download the pdf, but for me it isn’t enough. Like books, I need to hold the text in my hands, to engage with it physically. Ideas for me are tangible, and I get the same rush when I find them that I do when I come up with them myself.

I now have an enabler for my fetish for minutiae. She owns the coolest vintage/oddities store and takes me junking with her!