Review: Mesmerizing story of afterlife explores the nature of memory

The opening chapter of Kevin Brockmeier's extraordinary new novel, "The Brief History of the Dead" (Pantheon Books, $22.95) is as breathtaking as any fiction I have read in the past few years. People who have died describe their crossing over into a nameless city in the afterlife. To one blind man, the crossing felt like he walked for days through a desert. Another man described his passage as an amusement park train ride. A girl passed through an ocean the color of dried cherries and a rain of ball bearings.

New arrivals come to realize this city is a Limbo for grown-ups, a temporary place of humble earthly pleasures (and honking garbage trucks). They'll remain there only as long as people who are still alive remember them. "When the last person who had actually known them died, they would pass over into whatever came next."

Brockmeier then whisks us to Laura Byrd, an Antarctic researcher in the near future. Cut off from the outside world by damaged equipment, she makes a perilous solo journey toward equipment and possible help.

As this two-stranded novel plays out, "The Blinks," a horrific virus pandemic, kills millions in Byrd's world, and empties out much of the city of the dead as well. As the folks left standing in the city of the dead compare notes, they discover their connection is through the valiant Byrd, who seems to have known or met them all. The dependence may be mutual; one way Byrd copes with Antarctic solitude is to remember everyone she has met.

One of Brockmeier's literary heroes is the late master Italo Calvino; "The Brief History of the Dead" proves that Brockmeier can play in Calvino's league. It's a gracefully written story that blends fantasy, philosophical speculation, adventure and crystalline moments of compassion without ever feeling forced or lumpy. His city may rest on a fanciful premise, but its characters enjoy meals, spar in conversation, misunderstand what they've overheard and fall gently in love, all with beautiful realism.

"Brief History" also approaches one of my highest standards for fiction: Brockmeier gives nearly every character major or minor a fair shake, a chance to be grasped by readers as understandably human, if not always seen in his or her best light. Even a possible exception to this narrative fair play, a snarling corporate PR guy, is given a crucial moment as a man of action.


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