No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

2012/04: The Brief History of the Dead -- Kevin Brockmeier

Occasionally one of the dead, someone who had just completed the crossing, would mistake the city for heaven. It was a misunderstanding that never persisted for long. What kind of heaven had the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and chewing gum on the pavement, and the smell of fish rotting by the river? What kind of hell, for that matter, had bakeries and dogwood trees and perfect blue days that made the hairs on the back of your neck rise on end? No, the city was not heaven, and it was not hell, and it certainly was not the world. It stood to reason, then, that it had to be something else. More and more people came to adopt the theory that it was an extension of life itself–a sort of outer room–and that they would remain there only so long as they endured in living memory. (p.7)
There's a city -- the City -- where the dead go after their deaths; a city of subways and newspapers, parks and bars, vagrants and wealthy retirees. Lately, the population has increased at an alarming rate, but the City expands to accommodate the newcomers. The L. Sims News and Speculation Sheet (prop. Luka Sims) runs features about the virus that has killed so many -- a virus that may have been deliberately created and released as an act of war.

Meanwhile, in Antarctica, Laura Byrd ekes out a solitary existence in a remote base. She's the wildlife expert on a Coca-Cola-funded expedition to seek out the freshest, purest water on earth. (Sheer coincidence that this happens just as the threat of biological warfare hits critical.) Her two colleagues have set off on the sled to make contact with the larger base on the western rim of the Ross Sea, leaving Laura to drift through her memories and watch the wildlife.

There is no wildlife.

Brockmeier explores notions of death (and life) from the viewpoints of several people in the City: Luka Sims the newspaper editor; Coleman Kinzler, religious zealot, who's searching the City for traces of the Wandering Jew; Michael Puckett, Laura's Antarctic colleague, who's trying to calculate just how many people (a thousand? ten thousand? more?) he's met in his life; Marion Byrd, Laura's mother ... It's partly a mystery: why are we here? What's the dull drumming, like a heartbeat, that underpins city life? How did the virus spread so quickly? Why does everyone I meet know someone that I know? What happens next?

A beautiful book, and a fascinating exercise in philosophy: as bleak as the Antarctic landscape, as complex and vibrant as City life.

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