A Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier

Watching awards shows where people stumble to the podium clutching their lists of people to thank, I’ve sometimes thought that if I were ever to win an award, the first people I would want to thank would be people like the guys at Brentwood who keep my old car running, Paul at Eddie’s who without fail points me to just the right bottle of wine, Jeff Schneider who always has that obscure hardware item that I need for a project, Bernie Severe and his wonderful sons who rescue and refinish my hardwood floors, the folks at Al Pacino’s who make a consistently perfect Queens pizza for my Sunday night treat, the maintenance team (Mike, Jonathan and Grover) who come to my aid when water starts pouring through the ceiling in the middle of the night—all the people, in other words, who make my life possible. Sure, they are getting paid for doing their jobs, but I want them to know that I notice and appreciate how well they are doing them.

In Brockmeier’s richly imagined novel, he alternates the story of a woman—Laura Byrd—who has been left alone in an Antarctic research station with the story of the inhabitants of the City—people who have died but are still remembered. He bases the latter on an African tradition where people are not wholly dead until the last person to know them dies.

This concept of the “living-dead” enables him to pay tribute to the overlapping networks of friends, associates and acquaintances in which even the quietest life is embedded. One of the characters tries to come up with a number, deciding on fifty thousand “or maybe even seventy”. The story brings out the impact we have on each other, however fleeting our contact, and how dependent on each other we are. Characters like Laura who find themselves alone panic and go searching for someone—anyone—to be with.

I don’t mean to make the story sound heavy and philosophical. It’s not. It moves quickly, nimbly weaving together the multiple stories. Most people I’ve talked with read it in one sitting, thinking they’ll read just one more chapter, just one more. Same with me. Aside from quibbles about the realism of some Antarctic details, I found it one of the best and most provocative books I’ve read all year.

Standard practice in making fantasy work is to keep all the other elements as realistic as possible, so the inhabitants of the City live in apartments or houses like ours. They work at mundane jobs such as repairing clocks, running a fitness club, or selling jewelry. At first I thought this unlikely. People mostly complain about their jobs, celebrating hump day on Wednesday and looking forward to TGIF parties, so why after death’s release would they choose to take their jobs up again? I considered habit and boredom. Someone in my book club pointed out that a few people worked in fields that they had always wanted to try.

But the main thing I realised—what we so often forget—is that our work is partly what ties us into the community. However boring or difficult, every job confers that benefit. And, herd animals that we are, we want to be part of a community. So, to all of you whose courtesy and commitment enrich my days and give you a place in my life: thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>