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A little over two years ago, a brilliant short story by Kevin Brockmeier, called 'The Brief History of the Dead', appeared in the New Yorker. The story is at once a tour of the city of the dead and a dramatisation of how we give life to those we remember. Both the layout of the city and its population are in flux over time. They live as shadows, their life apparently dependent on who is left in the real world to think of them; when the last person to remember you dies, you leave the city, moving on to some other unknown place. Through the story, Brockmeier builds up a collage out of striking details and an everyday sensibility--this is not heaven, but something more mundane. And the situation is set against some unknown catastrophe occurring in our world: at first the city is flooded with newly dead, but later, and more affectingly, the population dwindles.

The story got a reasonable amount of notice, from both inside and outside the genre. It got reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection, and Warner Bros. quickly snapped up the film rights. The first of those events was not terribly surprising; the latter was a bit surprising, because 'The Brief History of the Dead', as memorable as it is, is not a story that would seem to lend itself to adaptation for film. Things become slightly clearer, however, when you discover that the story is the first chapter of a slightly less brilliant, but still notable, novel with the same title, due to be published next February, and that the novel introduces an additional plot strand: the last days of possibly the last human alive.

The human in question is Laura Byrd, and her last days are spent in Antarctica. She made the trip for business, not pleasure; the Coca-Cola Corporation sent a small team of people to look into the possibility of using polar ice in the manufacture of their drinks. Along with Laura, ostensibly the wildlife specialist, they sent Michael Puckett, as a polar specialist, and Robert Joyce, as a soft drink specialist. In the middle of their trip, however, they lose contact with the outside world; and in the face of dwindling supplies, Puckett and Joyce decide to make a trip to a nearby scientific research outpost to ask for help. After several weeks, they haven't returned, and Laura is starting to be faced with the prospect of making the same journey herself, alone. There are elements of satire here, notably in the portrayal of the Coca-Cola Corporation. Fresh Antarctic water is the least outrageous of the marketing schemes we learn about; it transpires that one of the reasons they're investigating the option at all is because there have been bioterrorism scars about contaminated water supplies, and that to capitalise this Coca-Cola has been employing good-looking men and women to strike up conversation with people drinking water in bars and restaurants, and ask them, "Wouldn't you feel safer drinking a Coke?"

But for the most part this is a quiet, understated novel. The Brief History of the Dead alternates between chapters focusing on Laura's progress, and chapters further exploring the city and its inhabitants. In Laura's chapters, we gradually learn that we are somewhere in the middle of this century, and that a probably-man-made pandemic is killing or has killed everyone else on the planet. In the city's chapters--and they are the city's chapters, because few of the characters we meet in them appear twice--we gradually see all the people from Laura's life, everyone she remembers, mixing and mingling. It's the ultimate in small world syndrome, full of the snap of connections recognised or forged. The novel's great strength is the way both threads are driven by memory, examining both what we choose to remember (the good or the bad) and how we remember it (consciously, or involuntarily; in this regard, and in some others, it makes an interesting comparison with Umberto Eco's Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana) In the cold emptiness of Antarctica, Laura has little to do but remember, and in the city, everyone is soon only too aware that they exist at all because Laura is still alive, and that sooner or later that is going to change. They are, as one character notes, a city of insomniacs; people waiting to dream.

As a result, it has to be said, the city is more interesting than Laura, whose eventual fate is never in doubt. This may be a personal quirk. Certainly John Murray seem to think so; my proof copy declares that 'the remarkable story of Laura Byrd's final days will be one of the most talked about novels of 2006', and only barely mentions the city or its many and varied inhabitants. But the Antarctica she travels across feels flat and generic--or to put it another way, Kevin Brockmeier doesn't have Kim Stanley Robinson's gift for conveying a sense of place; for all its flaws, Antarctica remains the definitive portrait of the continent in my mind--while the city and its inhabitants are endlessly fascinating.

We get glimpses of the people Laura has known--old school friends, lovers, or just people that she passed on the street every day--during her journey, but it's in the city that we get to know them. Puckett and Joyce are there, for instance; so is a retired journalist who decides to set up the city's only newspaper. Most of the book's most moving passages examine the inhabitants of the city coming to terms with their situation. They have lost the people that Laura never met; and forging new connections is a tentative, hesitant process, because their entire existence demonstrates, in a way that we normally choose to forget, that we can never know all of someone else's stories. The flipside of connection, after all, is isolation. So perhaps it's not fair to consider the two strands separately. Laura gives life to the city; she is large, and contains multitudes. But in a way, Laura is the shadow, and it is her memories that are truly alive.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Would you be able to say how this book compares to James Morrow's This is the Way the World Ends? I was struck as I was reading your review by the general similarities: satire of corporation and marketing, the world's last living person stranded in Antartica, a society of the dead. It could easily have all that and be a very different book, of course.

Either way, thanks for the review! Sounds like the sort of book I'd want to pick up. :)
I'm afraid I haven't read This Is The Way The World Ends; googling around, I can see the similarities, but I suspect Morrow has the satire higher up in the mix than Brockmeier does. Also, from what I can gather there's more direct contact between the protagonist and 'the unadmitted' in that book than there is between Laura and the dead in this one. She's not answering to anyone or for anything, except very indirectly.

Glad you liked the review, though. :)
I'm a little late to the mix on this one. I'm a little over half way through "History of the Dead" and it seems very similar to Morrow's book. The similarities are overwhelming, from a trek across Antartica to the global extinction and the last person alive. Morrow does use significantly more fantasy imagery than brockmeier, and he relies more on the legal confrontation as a plot device.

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