Friday, March 13, 2009

The Brief History of the Dead: a novel by Kevin Brockmeier

This handsomely jacketed book was an enjoyable romp through the world’s last days, but falls just short of a truly memorable experience because of a few missteps. The book opens with this quote from James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me:
“Many African societies divide humans in to three categories: those still alive on the earth, the sasha, and the zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead. They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, whi can call them to mind, create their likenesses in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, the ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead…. Many… can be recalled by name. But they are not the living dead. There is a difference.”
What follows is an exploration of that idea, but one that holds very, very closely with what is described in the quote. Maybe that’s why even with the great writing and inventive plotting that goes into Brockmeier’s story of a dying world and its effect on the afterworld, I couldn’t do more than like it.

Despite not falling in love, I think that there are two things make The Brief History worthwhile: Brockmeier’s take on the afterlife and some element of apocalypse. The afterlife reminds me of a less depressing version of the post-suicide world of Pizzeria Kamikaze. Life after death has similar routines and obligations as being alive and where a dead soul ends up is more of a transition place before oblivion or another unknowable state. My favorite about The Brief History’s afterlife is that there is a newspaper run by a man who can’t stop investigating, even after he loses his readers (and his life).

The apocalypse is experienced by two worlds in this book, which spruces up a somewhat clichéd cause of annihilation. What I like even more is that the dead and the living are kept from the true circumstances of their situation by unimaginable events, a great premise that in this instance needed a bit more tension to have maximum impact on the reader. Because of the opening quote the only real tension is supplied by wondering how long it will take for the characters to figure out what the reader already knows—a risky gambit that didn’t work in the book’s favor.

Akin to the lack of plot tension, the book is also missing a sense of challenging this reality to enhance the one the author created. This apocalypse goes down a bit too easy.

Now, whose copy of this did I borrow? Amy Ambulette’s maybe? You can have it back now. (Yeah right! Amy doesn't read blogs anymore!)


amy said...

Ha HA sucker! Here I am, reading your blog! I like blogs again, suddenly, today. I love them, actually.
I liked this book a lot, as you might recall. Back when I was able to read books like a normal non-mush-brained person. That might be my copy, actually. No rush though. Since there's not room for a single book anywhere in my apartment anyway.

looka said...

OK, OK! That sounds good, another one for the list of planned 2009 reads that is slowly coming together.

..."hansomely jacketed" allright!