Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Brief History of the Dead

I read this for a book discussion group I've just started attending, which is nice because I love to have people to talk to about what I'm reading, if only once in awhile, and it's something I haven't really had lately. I love seeing books in a different or clearer light because of what other people say about them. I also think it's interesting that the reading of books is treated as such a solitary thing when, of course, storytelling is by its nature communal. So, anyway, I'm really enjoying these monthly book discussions that I've been reading for.

The first, and most noteworthy thing about The Brief History of the Dead is the concept. The city in which half the novel is set is a kind of alternate plane, I suppose, in which the dead live for as long as someone on Earth remembers them. When the last person who remembers them dies, they vanish. To where, noone knows.

It's a brilliant concept, and at the beginning the whole book seems quite promising. There are these beautiful and poetic descriptions of people dying and coming to the city.
The girl who liked to stand beneath the poplar tree in the park said that she had died into an ocean the color of dried cherries.For awhile the water had carried her weight, she said, and she had lain on her back turning in meaningless circles, singing the choruses of the pop songs she remembered. But then there was a drum of thunder, and the clouds split open, and the ball bearings began to pelt down around her--tens of thousands of them. She had swallowed as many as she could, she said, stroking the cracked trunk of the poplar tree. She didn't know why.She filled like a canvas sack and sank slowly through the layers of the ocean. Shoals of fish brushed past her, their blue and yellow scales the single brightest thing in the water. And all around her she heard that sound, the one that everybody heard, the regular pulsing of a giant heart.
It's wonderful writing. The image of a dead body sinking through the water while fish swim by sounds like something you'd see at the beginning of CSI when I describe it, but the choice of words, the context, the structure of the sentences, make it almost breathtaking.

The problem is, all that potential basically fizzles away, into an unsatisfying book. The characters are a source of nothing so much as indifference and one doesn't find oneself emotionally invested in the story in any way. And the ideas Brockmeier is playing with never seem to be fully fleshed out or explored. His themes: memory, survival, human connection, are interesting but it never feel as though he's giving them their due. The city of the dead feels more like a convenience than a fully realized location and the characters suffer similarly. Are they symbols, stereotypes, simply very boring people? I don't know but somehow their interior lives seem to be painted in only the broadest strokes, a collection of quirks and habits, leaving them somehow impenetrable despite the omniscient narrator. In the end the book is more frustrating than anything else, a record of missed opportunities for the creation of something special.

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