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.