April 28, 2009

The cover shows some sort of coathanger monster, too.

The semester is winding down. That means I’m almost out of novels from my novels class! One more after this! But I finished the second-to-last one, The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. And now I will blog about it.

If I were to describe the concept of this novel to you, you would be all “woah, what a great idea.” That’s because it is a DAMN good idea. Basically, souls of people that are remembered personally (aka met them in real life, not read about in a book or saw on TV) by those still alive go to a “City” where they live out their afterlives. However, the world is ending. There’s only one person left alive. This City is then populated by only people whom this last living human knew, and the book follows them as well as the last bits of the last human’s life. That is a damn compelling idea.

However, it never really works. There’s nothing particularly bad about the writing in this novel. Mr. Brockmeier likes his tangents, and the story often goes that way, but at the same time, it’s a tale of memory and remembering, so it fits the novel. The main problem is the lack of an overall narrative.
The story of Laura, the last person left alive, has a complete arc, but it has to end tragically. There’s little meaning to it. We struggle with her in the really harsh conditions she finds herself in, and we can sympathize with her, all alone, in the ice and snow. It’s beyond her to find sense in her situation, though. She’s just trying to survive a catastrophe she had no part in. She can’t make it mean anything, and I don’t expect her to.
No, it is the people in the City, who are looking on these events with much more knowledge from beyond the grave, who should be making all of this make sense. It should be in them, who are trying to figure out what to do with the knowledge that the only thing keeping you here is likely about to die, and what to do with what little time you have left in this second life, that gives the book an overall meaning and significance. However, it completely fails to do that. The chapters dealing with the City jump from character to character. Some people show up again and again, but we only get little slivers about what these people are thinking and worrying about before they are gone. They all have completely different goals, even when dealing with the same thing. I would normally be all for these different perspectives, but these perspectives completely fail to give any meaning to the events. The significance of their actual situations as souls in waiting really doesn’t matter to them at all. The fact that they are all about to be “evacuated” seems to matter even less. No attempt is made to tie a unified theme throughout, I suppose. That’s what I want. Maybe class discussion will help me find one, but I sort of doubt it.

It doesn’t help that the book ends so abruptly. Yes, it makes sense that the world will end not with a bang but with a whimper, but again, it just feels like a distinct lack of planning. The book just ends, with absolutely no guidance into what I should think about that or what to take away from it. Once could argue that perhaps that’s the point of the whole book. The whole idea is that death is ultimately meaningless, even after having lived through it once. But that’s giving the book a whole lot of credit, and it’s so much more likely that it just wasn’t put together well, wasn’t it? If that was the point, I should have felt it, right? I think so.

In any case, I can’t really recommend the novel. It’s not bad. You could read it and I wouldn’t stop you. Again, the idea, the concept, is amazing. I would have liked to have read a really good book based on that concept. I just don’t think that The Brief History of the Dead is that book.

Sad that such an interesting concept wasn’t properly fleshed out.

Of course, I suppose an abrupt ending makes sense: once Laura dies, there’s nothing left as there’s no life on Earth, and The City would necessarily be vacant as well. But, if you don’t give a damn about the characters, an abrupt end will just leave you saying, “So what?”

Comment by Cris — April 28, 2009 @ 1:28 am

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