Monday, October 15, 2007

A Brief History of the Dead

Since I read two years ago, I have been recommending to all interested parties A Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. Here's the premise: There is an afterlife - a purgatory of sorts in which people arrive immediately following their demise. They remain there, in an ever growing city, so long as some living person remembers them. (It appears that this must be a personal memory, i.e. the person who remembers them must have physically encountered them rather than knowing them from television or media.). Once the last living person who remembers that deceased person himself passes away, the original person vanishes from the city-purgatory (presumably, though not necessarily, venturing on to heaven or hell). There are very interesting observations on memory, wistful nostalgia, acquaintanceship, and death in Brockmeier's novel. Here's the catch: On Earth, there comes a great plague, which thins the population to a tiny sliver. Since so many people die at once, a corresponding many vanish from the purgatory-city (since many of the people who remember them have themselves died). To boot, people who wind up in the purgatory city remain there for a very short period of time (as opposed to a number of decades) because those recently deceased people cannot now rely on living people to remember them for very long. As the living population slims, the few people who remain in the purgatory-city begin to wonder why they remain and exactly what, if anything, they have in common.

Writes one blogger: "I just can not stop thinking about who would be in my city." Indeed.

According to the book's mythos, if you remember a friend, an acquaintance, or even a random passer-by, that person will remain in the city for as long as you live, even if that person does not remember you. Your seventh grade crush, the creepy guy lurking outside your office building ten years ago, or the girl at the end of the bar you couldn't muster up the nerve to talk to and never save again, all of them are in your city. (No word on celebrities, though.). Presumably, even if your memory has mostly faded, they will be there. An interesting concept, and as the book ends, the reader desires it to continue, which is a rare thing these days."

Brockmeier is a young (or relatively young) Arkansan, although he's not written too many novels. I bought another book of his recently, but I've still yet to read it. "A Brief History of the Dead" was based on one of Brockmeier's short stories, which was originally published in The New Yorker in 2003. (You can read the original short story here.).

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