Based on folklore, Kevin Brockmeier breathes life into a hopeful possibility of what awaits us after we shuffle off this mortal coil. According to legend, we continue to exist for as long as one living person has a memory of us when we were alive.
In The Brief History of the Dead, every person who encounters you, who keeps a memory of you in her or his mind, gives you a place in the City of the Dead. It’s a true city with mass transit, sidewalks, a newspaper, trash collection, apartment buildings and employment. It can be similar to the life you just left, or you can choose to live out a desire or dream. You can encounter a beloved friend or spouse, you can open the business you always wanted, you can share your faith on the street, you can hide from your family from shame of your suicide — everyone has something they always wanted to do or something they carried with them.
As we discover this city, we also meet Laura Byrd, who is part of an exploration party in Antarctica seeking pure water from glaciers for Coca Cola. This story takes place in a near future which is as inhospitable as the Antarctic: cruel, cold and unforgiving. The isolation is even more stark in Laura’s world where information and connection are even more immediate than they are now.
The chapters are interwoven, and we become familiar with both Laura and the people of the city. One city dweller in particular carries the narrative: Luka, a newspaper publisher. It is through him we learn about the city and its inhabitants, and the arrival of the panicked virologist. With his death, everything on Earth and in the city changes — except for Laura, who comes to that realization slowly and, finally, with a true understanding of what it means to her. She and the inhabitants of the city are intertwined in a way no one on Earth could ever imagine.
The book had a fabulous story: a simultaneous look at life and the afterlife. And it was a huge success — up to the chapter near the end titled “The Marbles.” At that point, the author introduced an element that didn’t jive with the rest of the book. Because of "The Marbles," the ending made little sense without days of pondering and reflection (which is unsatisfactory in and of itself). Had I completely skipped "The Marbles," I’d have been thrilled with the book and would have insisted everyone I know read it.
In all, I enjoyed the book, and I recommend it — just lose the marbles. You won’t miss a thing except a little confusion, and we can all do with less of that.