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The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

The Brief History of the Dead is a highly original novel that alternates between chapters about a female wildlife specialist in Antarctica who may be the last person alive on the planet following a viral pandemic and chapters featuring a city where the dead continue to live as long as someone on Earth remembers them.

The book's author Kevin Brockmeier is a very gifted writer and his skill is evident throughout the narrative. The conceit of the necropolis, though, doesn't hold up through the length of the text, and as the link between the two storylines becomes clear, the plot drags toward its inevitable terminus.

I also struggled a bit with the book's apocalyptic setup of a virus that kills everyone on the planet. Even assuming the most virulent strain of a mutagenic virus, it seems incredibly unlikely that a virus would kill off an entire host population. Perhaps if Brockmeier had offered up explanations as to why the virus didn't mutate into less virulent forms or why no one was immune, this questionable plot construct wouldn't have stood out so much.

Despite these points, it's worth repeating how inventive and well-written The Brief History of the Dead is. I look forward to reading more from Kevin Brockmeier in the future.


  1. You raise some interesting points. This book, and its premise, continues to haunt me. I wonder, though, if the novel is as short as it is precisely because of the narrative difficulty you identify (i.e., can the very interesting premise be maintained for the full length of a novel). I disagree with you and believe that it did, although I doubt it would or could have had its author gone into any greater detail. It left me wanting more as a reader, which is exactly where an author should leave a reader. (I believe it started out a short story in the New Yorker and was later expanded into a novel, and perhaps the concept is best suited for that medium or a novella?).

    As for the virus, I think that is just a construct. Had he gone into any detail about the virus, its origins, or its precise medical effect, I think that would have detracted from the grim beauty of the prose and its statements on memory, nostalgia, and death. This novel was not really science fiction, I though, or at least, it wasn't written as part of that genre, and as such, there was just no need to go into the specifics of that.


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