…then everything went still and began to beat like a heart. The sound was as clear as any he had ever heard. It was only at that moment, he said, with a million arrow-points of sand striking his skin, that he had truly realized he was dead. (chapter one)
The first chapter of Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead appeared in the September 8, 2003 edition of The New Yorker. Finished in 2006, Brockmeier’s science fiction novel is like nothing I’ve read before or since. I’m not a huge fan of the sci-fi genre. Too much exposure to fantastic names or places usually leaves me confused and a bit bored. But, this story of an alternate (I hope) not-too-distant future of melted polar ice caps, global terrorism, and an unexplained virus plaguing the world coupled with an interpretation of death and the afterlife very far removed from traditional western belief reminded me that good writing and storytelling, regardless of genre, is what makes a book worth reading.
The quote at the beginning of the book, taken from James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, explains one aspect of the novel’s setting: The City of the Dead. According to Loewen’s book, many African societies believe humans exist in three categories: those alive on earth, the recently departed, called the sasha, and the zamani, the truly dead. The sasha are in a living-dead state, “still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote.” It is only when the last person who can recall an individual also passes into death that the ancestor becomes zamani, the dead. The City in Brockmeier’s story is reminiscent of any major city in the United States, except all the inhabitants are dead. Their existence mirrors life on earth in many ways. There are coffee shops, newspapers, parks and subways. They are in the ‘sasha’ category of death.
Meanwhile, the reader learns of earth’s fate through Laura Byrd, a researcher sent to Antarctica to test the purity level of its water. Laura is there with two colleagues, but when communications are cut off and a supply helicopter doesn’t appear, the two men go off to find help, and disappear into the Antarctic landscape. Laura is left alone at the research station; unaware of an epidemic affecting earth’s other inhabitants.
The City swells with newcomers. And then, just as suddenly, people vanish. Entire neighborhoods vanish. Those that are left behind band together to figure out why they have not been selected to enter the next phase, whatever that might be…
The novel elegantly moves back and forth between the City and Laura’s perspective. Left to survive on her own in Antarctica, the reader finds herself fighting with Laura to stay alive. And, in a peculiar turn, those that have already passed into death are comfortably waiting for the next phase to be revealed.
If you’re interested in reading the first chapter online: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/09/08/030908fi_fiction
photo courtesy of Baker & Taylor