Since Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, satire has taken on increasingly darker tones. Whether a sign of our murky present times, or a meaningless cultural trend, satire’s gradual depression reaches its nadir in Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead.
Brockmeier’s humor is so subtle that it takes a good deal of searching to locate, and, when you do, it’s so bitterly incisive that you may forget to laugh.
The futuristic History begins depressingly enough – with a rapidly spreading pandemic, leading soon to the nearly total depopulation of an earth almost entirely controlled by corporations. Eventually, only Laura Byrd, an Antarctic researcher in the employ of Coca-Cola (part of a too-small team investigating the effects Antarctic ice would have on the production of soft drinks), remains alive.
As Byrd struggles across Antarctica, seeking signs of her fellow researchers – or any signs of human life remaining on the planet – Brockmeier takes us to the City. The City is the home of the recently deceased, a kind of limbo where the dead remain until the last person who knew them in life passes away.
As the global pandemic spreads, the City empties out just as quickly as the earth, until only those people whose lives touched Byrd’s remain.
As the residents of the City begin to recognize this connection, they find themselves in awe over their numbers. As Byrd struggles for survival – and companionship – in Antarctic, she does so with “multitudes of people in her thoughts, multitudes walking behind her.”
History unfolds slowly, gradually revealing the mysterious origins of the pandemic – and in the process, revealing a lot of unsettling aspects of 21st century life.
Though belonging to the future, the people who bide their time in the City, awaiting Byrd’s inevitable demise, are not so different from us. Nor, as it becomes clear, is their dystopian world.
Though a fascinating story, History suffers from a lack of sophistication by Brockheimer. Though it is his third book, the novel reads more like a debut effort. This immaturity comes through in Brockheimer’s content and language, both of which seem less than original at times.
For all its gloom, Kevin Brockheimer’s The Brief History of the Dead is, more than anything else, about the number of lives subtly shaped and influenced by just one person.
In the City, we meet people Byrd knew at different times in her life: her family, friends and lovers, her coworkers and the people she sees daily in the street.
These connections, though tenuous, link us all together in an increasingly fragmented world. The people we meet lend meaning to our lives, and just as we do to theirs.
“The living carry us inside them like pearls,” writes Brockheimer. “We survive only so long as they remember us.”
For all its lessons about society, this is where the true meaning of The Brief History of the Dead lies.
Peter Chomko may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.