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  • Written by Kevin Brockmeier
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  • Written by Kevin Brockmeier
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Written by Kevin BrockmeierAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kevin Brockmeier

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On Sale: February 14, 2006
Pages: 240 | ISBN: 978-0-375-42423-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

From Kevin Brockmeier, one of this generation's most inventive young writers, comes a striking new novel about death, life, and the mysterious place in between. The City is inhabited by those who have departed Earth but are still remembered by the living. They will reside in this afterlife until they are completely forgotten. But the City is shrinking, and the residents clearing out. Some of the holdouts, like Luka Sims, who produces the City’s only newspaper, are wondering what exactly is going on. Others, like Coleman Kinzler, believe it is the beginning of the end. Meanwhile, Laura Byrd is trapped in an Antarctic research station, her supplies are running low, her radio finds only static, and the power is failing. With little choice, Laura sets out across the ice to look for help, but time is running out. Kevin Brockmeier alternates these two storylines to create a lyrical and haunting story about love, loss and the power of memory.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

THE CITY

When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had traveled across a desert of living sand. First he had died, he said, and then–snap!–the desert. He told the story to everyone who would listen, bobbing his head to follow the sound of their footsteps. Showers of red grit fell from his beard. He said that the desert was bare and lonesome and that it had hissed at him like a snake. He had walked for days and days, until the dunes broke apart beneath his feet, surging up around him to lash at his face. Then everything went still and began to beat like a heart. The sound was as clear as any he had ever heard. It was only at that moment, he said, with a million arrow points of sand striking his skin, that he truly realized he was dead.

Jim Singer, who managed the sandwich shop in the monument district, said that he had felt a prickling sensation in his fingers and then stopped breathing. "It was my heart," he insisted, thumping firmly on his chest. "Took me in my own bed." He had closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, he was on a train, the kind that trolleys small children around in circles at amusement parks. The rails were leading him through a thick forest of gold-brown trees, but the trees were actually giraffes, and their long necks were reaching like branches into the sky. A wind rose up and peeled the spots from their backs. The spots floated down around him, swirling and dipping in the wake of the train. It took him a long time to understand that the throbbing noise he heard was not the rattling of the wheels along the tracks.

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 a while 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.

The stories people told about the crossing were as varied and elaborate as their ten billion lives, so much more particular than those other stories, the ones they told about their deaths. After all, there were only so many ways a person could die: either your heart took you, or your head took you, or it was one of the new diseases. But no one followed the same path over the crossing. Lev Paley said that he had watched his atoms break apart like marbles, roll across the universe, then gather themselves together again out of nothing at all. Hanbing Li said that he woke inside the body of an aphid and lived an entire life in the flesh of a single peach. Graciella Cavazos would say only that she began to snow–four words–and smile bashfully whenever anyone pressed her for details.

No two reports were ever the same. And yet always there was the drumlike thumping noise.

Some people insisted that it never went away, that if you concentrated and did not turn your ear from the sound, you could hear it faintly behind everything in the city–the brakes and the horns, the bells on the doors of restaurants, the clicking and slapping of different kinds of shoes on the pavement. Groups of people came together in parks or on rooftops just to listen for it, sitting quietly with their backs turned to one another. Ba-dum. Ba-dum. Ba-dum. It was like trying to keep a bird in sight as it lifted, blurred, and faded to a dot in the sky.

Luka Sims had found an old mimeograph machine his very first week in the city and decided to use it to produce a newspaper. He stood outside the River Road Coffee Shop every morning, handing out the circulars he had printed. One particular issue of the L. Sims News & Speculation Sheet–or the Sims Sheet, as people called it–addressed the matter of this sound. Fewer than twenty percent of the people Luka interviewed claimed that they could still hear it after the crossing, but almost everyone agreed that it resembled nothing so much as–could be nothing other than–the pounding of a heart. The question, then, was, Where did it come from? It could not be their own hearts, for their hearts no longer beat. The old man Mahmoud Qassim believed that it was not the actual sound of his heart, but the remembered sound, which, because he had both heard and failed to notice it for so long, still resounded in his ears. The woman who sold bracelets by the river thought that it was the heartbeat at the center of the world, that bright, boiling place she had fallen through on her way to the city. "As for this reporter," the article concluded, "I hold with the majority. I have always suspected that the thumping sound we hear is the pulse of those who are still alive. The living carry us inside them like pearls. We survive only so long as they remember us." It was an imperfect metaphor–Luka knew that–since the pearl lasts much longer than the oyster. But rule one in the newspaper business was that you had to meet your deadlines. He had long since given up the quest for perfection.

There were more people in the city every day, and yet the city never failed to accommodate them. You might be walking down a street you had known for years, and all of a sudden you would come upon another building, another whole block. Carson McCaughrean, who drove one of the sleek black taxis that roamed the streets, had to redraw his maps once a week. Twenty, thirty, fifty times a day, he would pick up a fare who had only recently arrived in the city and have to deliver him somewhere he–Carson–had never heard of. They came from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. They came from churning metropolises and from small islands in the middle of the ocean. That was what the living did: they died. There was an ancient street musician who began playing in the red brick district as soon as he reached the city, making slow, sad breaths with his accordion. There was a jeweler, a young man, who set up shop at the corner of Maple and Christopher Streets and sold diamonds that he mounted on silver pendants. Jessica Auffert had operated her own jewelry shop on the same corner for more than thirty years, but she did not seem to resent the man, and in fact brought him a mug of fresh black coffee every morning, exchanging gossip as she drank with him in his front room. What surprised her was how young he was–how young so many of the dead were these days. Great numbers of them were no more than children, who clattered around on skateboards or went racing past her window on their way to the playground. One, a boy with a strawberry discoloration on his cheek, liked to pretend that the rocking horses he tossed himself around on were real horses, the horses he had brushed and fed on his farm before they were killed in the bombing. Another liked to swoop down the slide over and over again, hammering his feet into the gravel as he thought about his parents and his two older brothers, who were still alive. He had watched them lift free of the same illness that had slowly sucked him under. He did not like to talk about it.

This was during a war, though it was difficult for any of them to remember which one.

* * *

Occasionally one of the dead, someone who had just completed the crossing, would mistake the city for heaven. It was a misunderstanding that never persisted for long. What kind of heaven had the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and chewing gum on the pavement, and the smell of fish rotting by the river? What kind of hell, for that matter, had bakeries and dogwood trees and perfect blue days that made the hairs on the back of your neck rise on end? No, the city was not heaven, and it was not hell, and it certainly was not the world. It stood to reason, then, that it had to be something else. More and more people came to adopt the theory that it was an extension of life itself–a sort of outer room–and that they would remain there only so long as they endured in living memory. When the last person who had actually known them died, they would pass over into whatever came next. It was true that most of the city's occupants went away after sixty or seventy years, and while this did not prove the theory, it certainly served to nourish it. There were stories of men and women who had been in the city much longer, for centuries and more, but there were always such stories, in every time and place, and who knew whether to believe them?

Every neighborhood had its gathering spot, a place where people could come together to trade news of the other world. There was the colonnade in the monument district, and the One and Only Tavern in the warehouse district, and right next to the greenhouse, in the center of the conservatory district, was Andrei Kalatozov's Russian Tea Room. Kalatozov poured the tea he brewed from a brass samovar into small porcelain cups that he served on polished wooden platters. His wife and daughter had died a few weeks before he did, in an accident involving a land mine they had rooted up out of the family garden. He was watching through the kitchen window when it happened. His wife's spade struck a jagged hunk of metal, so cankered with rust from its century underground that he did not realize what it was until it exploded. Two weeks later, when he put the razor to his throat, it was with the hope that he would be reunited with his family in heaven. And, sure enough, there they were–his wife and daughter–smiling and taking coats at the door of the tea room. Kalatozov watched them as he sliced a lemon into wedges and arranged the wedges on a saucer. He was the happiest man in the room–the happiest man in any room. The city may not have been heaven, but it was heaven enough for him. Morning to evening, he listened to his customers as they shared the latest news about the war. The Americans and the Middle East had resumed hostilities, as had China and Spain and Australia and the Netherlands. Brazil was developing another mutagenic virus, one that would resist the latest antitoxins. Or maybe it was Italy. Or maybe Indonesia. There were so many rumors that it was hard to know for sure.

Now and then someone who had died only a day or two before would happen into one of the centers of communication–the tavern or the tea room, the river market or the colonnade–and the legions of the dead would mass around him, shouldering and jostling him for information. It was always the same: "Where did you live?" "Do you know anything about Central America?" "Is it true what they're saying about the ice caps?" "I'm trying to find out about my cousin. He lived in Arizona. His name was Lewis Zeigler, spelled L-e-w-i-s…" "What's happening with the situation along the African coast--do you know, do you know?" "Anything you can tell us, please, anything at all."

Kiran Patel had sold beads to tourists in the Bombay hotel district for most of a century. She said that there were fewer and fewer travelers to her part of the world, but that this hardly mattered, since there was less and less of her part of the world for them to see. The ivory beads she had peddled as a young woman had become scarce, then rare, then finally unobtainable. The only remaining elephants were caged away in the zoos of other countries. In the years just before she died, the "genuine ivory beads" she sold were actually a cream-colored plastic made in batches of ten thousand in Korean factories. This, too, hardly mattered. The tourists who stopped at her kiosk could never detect the difference.

Jeffrey Fallon, sixteen and from Park Falls, Wisconsin, said that the fighting hadn't spread in from the coasts yet, but that the germs had, and he was living proof. "Or not living, maybe, but still proof," he corrected himself. The bad guys used to be Pakistan, and then they were Argentina and Turkey, and after that he had lost track. "What do you want me to tell you?" he asked, shrugging his shoulders. "Mostly I just miss my girlfriend." Her name was Tracey Tipton, and she did this thing with his earlobes and the notched edge of her front teeth that made his entire body go taut and buzz like a guitar string. He had never given his earlobes a second thought until the day she took them between her lips, but now that he was dead he thought of nothing else. Who would have figured?

The man who spent hours riding up and down the escalators in the Ginza Street Shopping Mall would not give his name. When people asked him what he remembered about the time before he died, he would only nod vigorously, clap his hands together, and say, "Boom!," making a gesture like falling confetti with his fingertips.

Excerpted from The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier Copyright © 2006 by Kevin Brockmeier. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


From the Hardcover edition.
Kevin Brockmeier

About Kevin Brockmeier

Kevin Brockmeier - The Brief History of the Dead

Photo © Benjamin Krain

In addition to his most recent work, A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, KEVIN BROCKMEIER is the author of the novels The Illumination, The Brief History of the Dead, and The Truth About Celia; the story collections Things That Fall from the Sky and The View from the Seventh Layer; and the children’s novels City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. His work has been translated into seventeen languages. He has published his stories in such venues as The New Yorker, The Georgia Review, McSweeney’s, Zoetrope, Tin House, The Oxford American, The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and New Stories from the South. He has recieved the Borders Original Voices Award, three O. Henry Awards (one, a first prize), the PEN USA Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an NEA Grant. In 2007, he was named one of Granta magazine’s Best Young American Novelists He teaches frequently at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and he lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was raised.

Praise

Praise

“Thrilling. . . . Inventive. . . . Deftly told. . . . Brockmeier does a wonderful job of conjuring up the dead.” –The Washington Post Book World “Brilliant. . . . Brockmeier’s characters are wonderful, and his images are dazzling.”–Detroit Free Press“Extraordinary. . . . Breathtaking. . . . A gracefully written story that blends fantasy, philosophical speculation, adventure and crystalline moments of compassion.”–Milwaukee Journal Sentinel“Striking. . . . Brave. . . . Deliciously disquieting. . . . The Brief History of the Dead will stay alive in the memories of readers for years to come.”–The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Kevin Brockmeier’s brilliantly imagined apocalyptic novel The Brief History of the Dead.

About the Guide

Kevin Brockmeier’s ambitious new novel takes readers deep into the Antarctic wilderness, to a future where the human race is devastated by a deadly virus and to a city of the dead— whose denizens will exist there only as long as they are remembered by the living.

The main story lines of The Brief History of the Dead proceed on parallel tracks in this world and the afterlife. While a deadly virus, unleashed by terrorists, is killing millions, Laura Byrd struggles to save her own life in the frozen tundra of the Antarctic, where she has been sent on a research mission for the Coca-Cola Corporation. As more people are killed by the plague, more of the dead disappear from the city, because no one is left to remember them. Soon only Laura remains, alone in a frozen world, cut off from all contact with other humans, clinging precariously to life and desperately searching for signs of others. In the afterlife, everyone she has ever known–her parents, Marion and Phillip, Luka Sims, a professor with whom she had an affair, a blind man, a religious zealot, her friends, coworkers, and acquaintances–depend on her survival for their own. It is not heaven where they live (“What kind of heaven had the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and chewing gum on the pavement, and the smell of fish rotting by the river?”), but a city that mirrors earthly cities, where people sell flowers, eat at diners, print newspapers, argue, fall in love, and consider the whys and wherefores of their predicament much as they did when alive. But as the novel’s parallel stories begin to intersect and Laura loses her grip on life, the city’s residents are hurtled toward a conclusion that is disturbingly provocative.

Exploring the intricacies of memory and the subtle threads that connect the living and the dead, The Brief History of the Dead engages some of the deepest human fears and imaginings, forcing readers to consider both the world that we are creating and the one that awaits us.

About the Author

Kevin Brockmeier is the author of The Truth About Celia and a children’s book, City of Names. He has published stories in The Georgia Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and McSweeney’s, and his story “Space” from Things That Fall from the Sky has been selected for The Best American Short Stories. He has received the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, an Italo Calvino Short Fiction Award, a James Michener-Paul Engle Fellowship, two O. Henry Awards (one, a first prize), and most recently, a NEA grant. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Discussion Guides

1. What makes the premise of The Brief History of the Dead–that the recently dead inhabit a necropolis very much like an earthly city but only as long as they are remembered by the living–so engaging? What basic human feelings does this idea draw upon?

2. What is the significance of the heartbeat that everyone hears during the passage into death? What happens when it can no longer be heard?

3. In what ways is the city of the dead reassuringly like our own cities? How do people feel about being there?

4. How likely is the future that Brockmeier paints in the novel–melting polar icecaps, the mass extinction of animals, a plague deliberately spread by terrorists? What aspects of our current situation point to such a possibility?

5. During Lindell Trimble’s Employee of the Year award acceptance speech, he insists that Coca-Cola must not rest on its laurels but keep its momentum going. “A body is more likely to die at sunset than at any other hour of the day–that’s a fact,” he says. “The trick, then, is to keep the sun from setting. That’s what we’re looking for at Coca-Cola, and what we in the PR division have been fighting so hard to achieve: a sun that never sets. A perpetual noon” [p. 125]. What is wrong with this kind of thinking? What are the consequences of such a philosophy of unbounded hubris and the refusal to accept natural limitation?

6. The dead are surprised by their memories. “They might go weeks and months without thinking of the houses and neighborhoods they had grown up in, their triumphs of shame and glory, the jobs, routines, and hobbies that had slowly eaten away their lives, yet the smallest, most inconsequential episode would leap into their thoughts a hundred times a day, like a fish smacking its tail on the surface of a lake” [p. 11]. Does this seem an accurate description of how memory often works? Why would the dead forget the important things and remember the trivial ones?

7. What does The Brief History of the Dead reveal about the subtle ways a single, ordinary human life is interconnected with thousands of others? Does Puckett’s claim that he can remember between fifty and seventy thousand people seem exaggerated or plausible?

8. Explore the connections between the novel’s main plotlines–Laura’s struggle to stay alive in the Antarctic and the existential predicament of the recently dead. In what ways, obvious and subtle, do these stories connect?

9. Why has Kevin Brockmeier chosen Coca-Cola as the medium that carries the deadly virus? What larger cultural, social, political point is he making through this choice? In what ways do current instances of corporate disregard for public health prefigure such an event?

10. What is the next stage of death, “that distant world where broken souls are wrenched out of their histories”? [p. 252]. Is Brockmeier pointing toward heaven or some other kind of afterlife? What will happen to these souls?

11. What are the ironies of Luka Sims running a daily newspaper for the dead and Coleman Kinzler warning the dead about the Second Coming of Christ? What other appealing peculiarities does A Brief History of the Dead provide?

12. In what ways is A Brief History of the Dead both realistic and fantastic? How does Brockmeier balance naturalistic elements from the world as we know it with an imagined future of the human race and a visionary depiction of the first stage of the afterlife?

Suggested Readings

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake; Albert Camus, The Plague; Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World; Pat Frank, Alas, Babylon; Jean Hegland, Into the Forest; Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome; Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; Tony Vigorito, Just a Couple of Days.

  • The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
  • January 09, 2007
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.00
  • 9781400095957

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