How or why in 2006 did Kevin Brockmeier think of writing about the future extinction of humans and other mammals only to focus for the duration of his novel, The Brief History of the Dead, in part, on an in-between place, a way station between life and perhaps oblivion? He calls that place The City. Is it a sort of limbo, where people land after making a crossing from life into an extension of life, somewhere between heaven and hell? Or is The City an anteroom for the deceased with no view into whatever comes next? A lot of philosophical questions throughout this novel elevate it from being just another dystopian condemnation of contemporary society to a thoughtful examination of choices people, corporations, and countries make often to their detriment.
The novel’s front matter quotation hints at the nature of The City. James William Loewan, an American sociologist, historian, and author, wrote Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, originally published in 1995, then again in 2008 and 2018. An examination of twelve traditional history textbooks, Lies critiques their simplistic and often deceptive or inaccurate teachings. Here is Loewan’s text that Brockmeier chose to inform his narrative:
Many African societies divide humans into three categories: those still alive on the earth, the sasha, and the zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead. They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead. As generalized ancestors, the zamani are not forgotten but revered. Many…can be recalled by name. But they are not living-dead. There is a difference.
The other part of The Brief History of the Dead pulling scenes of life in The City into increasingly sharper focus is the character, Laura Byrd who is alive and stranded in Antarctica; her story encapsulates the novel’s tri-partite theme of life, death, and memory. She works as a wildlife expert for Coca Cola, here a stand-in for gigantic corporations driving the harmful effects of globalism. They’ve sent her and two scientists to Antarctica to set up camp and help promote Coca Cola’s plan to market the drink made with water from the melting polar ice cap. In the face of bioterrorism and fears of contaminated drinking water supplies, the project seemed like a good idea.
It all backfires horribly and Laura ends up the last human alive on the planet. Her memories of a network of people in her past life have kept those people “alive” in The City. Toward the end of the work, a prominent character, the blind man, hears a discussion about the body, the spirit, and the soul, during which one speaker asserts that the spirit and the soul are identical. The blind man disagrees: “Many people tended to use the words casually, interchangeably, as though there was no difference at all between them, but the spirit and the soul were not the same thing. The body was the material component of a person. The soul was the nonmaterial component. The spirit was simply the connecting line.” (p.244, Pantheon Books, New York, 2006). Just as in the course of a person’s existence the spirit bridges the body and the soul, so a person’s trajectory in The Brief History of the Dead is a journey from life, to an extension of life sustained by memory, to whatever happens next.
That multi-faceted theme resonates with many contemporary cultures and religious observances. Among some Chinese, for example, a custom prevails honoring the dead on the anniversary of their passing and on other important occasions with food, drink, and burnt offerings. In South Korea, some people have the remains of the dead compressed into beads, which they display in their homes as a constant reminder of their dead. In the Jewish tradition, when writing the name of a deceased person, one often inserts the acronym z”l, representing the Hebrew zikhrono/zikhronah livrakha, meaning “May his/her memory be a blessing.” Many people in many cultures recognize that on earth they will live, albeit immaterially, as long as they are remembered in some way. That being so, The Brief History of the Dead clearly resonates deep within the human spirit.