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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.
Posted January 31, 2013
This story haunted me for weeks after i finished it and im still writing a review years later... that seems to be the case with this auhors books. Also he seems to be somewhat obessed with death. But its not morbid, more spiritual.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 5, 2012
Posted January 29, 2010
I approached this book with a great deal of excitement. Not expectations, but simply excitement at what could be done with such an intriguing premise. I wanted to like it, I really did, but Brockmeier wouldn't let me. His prose is okay, I guess, but it also felt very tired. In fact, the whole book felt tired. As though Brockmeier really didn't want to be writing it at all. The plot moves so slow I found myself forgetting every few chapters what was going on: I just didn't care. The characters are not only one-dimensional, but they're boring. Sometimes one-dimensional characters can be fun simply for their own sake, not in this case. If you are looking for a good dose from the magical realism genre stick to Murakami or Marquez.
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Posted November 6, 2009
Kevin Brockmeier drags his readers through 252 pages of teasing at some sort of grand payoff or recollection that never comes. The Brief History of the Dead is the epitome of a novel without any rewarding climax or even revelation. Brockmeier sucks in the reader with the illusion of a promising tale of what has become of our world in his near future scenario as remembered by those who have recently passed.
Brockmeier introduces his reader to an ancient African concept of life beyond this world. A world, similar to our own, filled with individuals who have died, but who are remembered by the living. As the last person to remember an individual dies, he or she leaves this second world, presumably for another.
Droping his readers into the world of the dead, we are told of an earth desecrated by humans, troubled by war and pollution: an earth at the latter edge of human existence. Soon the city starts to swell, and then it is all but empty, almost overnight. Brockmeier tells us the stories of these dead in third person, alternating between the inhabitants of the city and a live individual, Laura Byrd, last living human. The vast majority of the dead, those who have most recently died, were wiped out by an illness known widely as "the blinks." As a scientist isolated on research in Antartica, Byrd is never exposed and her memory keeps these people from advancing. Through flashbacks and nonsensical dreams, the connections between those in the city of the dead and the individuals from Laura's life are thrust upon the reader. Laura Struggles to make contact with the world and reveals what has happened to the human race when she comes across the remain of another base better connected to the rest of humanity. Brockmeier's central message seem to be that an individual effects everyone around them, but as the story concludes, the reader is left with three major unanswered questions: What happens to Laura? What happens to the city upon Laura's supposed death? And Why did I waste my time reading this book?
Posted August 27, 2009
I first heard about this book on NPR's Fresh Air when the author was interviewed. I was fascinated by the idea of the manner in which death was portrayed by the author. I had a certain idea about the book because of the interview but I was surprised by the way the book unfolded and ended. I do not consider this book a page-turner because it is a bit difficult to get into at first and I didn't form an attachment with the characters, but the ideas in this book are original and strange. I would recommend this book for Sci-Fi fans.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 21, 2008
Based off an excerpt from the book Lies My Teacher Told Me, Brockmeier puts a whole new spin on the reality of the afterlife. Fascinated by the African belief of three stages of life; the living, the sasha (living-dead), and the zamani (dead), Kevin transforms an unknown world into a captivating story of survival and rebirth. This mesmerizing novel revolves around two different worlds; one being the ¿city of the sasha¿ and the other focusing on a scientist in Antarctica struggling to stay alive. <BR/>The story bounces back and forth with reality and the city of the living-dead continuing to unravel a link with the two worlds and keeping the reader intrigued in discovering this connection. In the real world, Laura Byrd is a wildlife specialist who is working in Antarctica on an experiment for Coca-Cola. Along with two other scientists, her team loses communication to the outside world and slowly loses hope in ever being rescued, so Laura is left alone at their station while the others try to find help. Detached from reality, the scientists have no idea about what is happening to the rest of the world. An epidemic is spreading from one country to the next, killing millions each day, through the one thing they are trying to preserve; a simple soda. Terrorists plagued the rising Coca-Cola federation with a fatal virus that is known as ¿the Blinks¿. The virus is untreatable and deathly, unstoppable. What seemed like just a nightmare becomes real as Laura embarks on a journey across the Artic alone, freezing, and low on supplies and finds nothing but traces of loss hope in other survivors. She only learns of the epidemic through a journal left behind by her team member at another base camp, but she has no comprehension as to how much of an impact the virus has caused on the rest of the world. <BR/>In ¿the city¿ the population of the living-dead starts to diminish which leads to one explanation; the population of the world is dropping; rapidly. Soon there are but a few remaining inhabitants that start to witness the city boundaries shrink right before their eyes. Whole blocks disappear by the day leaving behind those that are still clutched in Laura¿s memories. The one person that holds them all trapped in the city is the one person struggling to survive, unknowing that their passage to the afterlife is determined through her fate and the one common ground between them all; her memory. <BR/>Brockmeier¿s imagination captures us on every page and forces us to turn to the next. He switches the point-of-view constantly throughout the story, which gives us a different aspect from all angles of those who are held captive in ¿the city¿ as well as Laura¿s grip on life. As a reader we are swept off our feet into a new world where we discover the importance of those we encounter throughout our lives whether they be a close friend or just the paper boy, and we continue to sore until the last Ba-dum which still echoes in our minds as we reach the final page. Brockmeier¿s The History of the Dead shows us that even our fate can lie in the hands of a complete stranger.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 1, 2008
I picked up this book based on recommendations and good reviews that were posted here. I was greatly disappointed. I had a lot of difficulty I getting through this book which seemed like a poor imitation of Richard Matheson's 'What Dreams May Come.' The author of this book must have read that book first to get his ideas for this book but he did a poor job of trying to put a different spin about places beyond death. I suggest reading Matheson's book instead which is excellent!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 9, 2007
The book, on a whole, is wonderfully written. Holds your interest until the end. But, unfortunetly, the ending was disappointing. I felt like something greater should have happened. But, in the end, it is a good book and I have recommended it to many friends.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 6, 2007
I found this book to be fascinating and recommend it to anyone that likes a theme that is a little bit unusual and 'out there' - touching on spiritual aspects of life after death.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 17, 2007
The first chapter is better that the whole book. A short story by itself really impressive and outstanding. Regarding to the rest of the book, I felt that I could be even stronger, and all that Laura and Coca-Cola thing never really got me.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 7, 2007
The title is intriguing, the description of the book is intriguing, and the first chapter hooked me. But from there it was one of the most boring books I have ever plodded through. The stories of the folks in the city were promising but none of them ever went anywhere. The descriptions of Laura Bird's experiences were excruciating and should have been fewer and shorter. The ending is easily surmised by the end of the second chapter, so I kept waiting for some other major plot point or revelation that just never came. Don't waste your time on this book!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 8, 2006
From the back of the book - 'Remember me when I'm gone' just took on a whole new meaning. Brockmeier wrote this book after reading a one sentence discription of an African fable he creates a new place to go when our hearts stop beating. People who are still remembered by some one on Earth, populate 'The City'. As long as they're remembered they stay in the City, at the same age. Could be decades. I could hardly put this book down. I know you'll love it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 16, 2006
This novel made me think of things I don't usually spend time on, such as, WHAT IF everyone shared the fate of the characters. I don't want to give it away, since it was such a facinating read. I found the story line remote, but at the same time frighteningly possible. Obviously, I loved it!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 28, 2006
This was a fascinating read. Deep, thought-provoking. A story unlike any other, clearly illustrating how intertwined our lives are. It is, however, about death--and whatever comes after death. At times the isolation and hopelessness in the story is palpable, a tribute to the author's talent.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 16, 2006
I recently finished listening to this book on audio cd, and I must say I was impressed. The first chapter completely hooked me, and I was hoping the remainder of the book would have the same tone. The people in the City's descriptions of death were astounding and really sucked me into this world. The story is brilliantly simple, after we die, we go to this alternate reality, the City, where we live like normal just so long as someone alive still remembers us. After the last person who remembers us dies, we leave the City and go on to whatever comes next. The story takes off from there and involves such things as Anarctica, the Coca-Cola pandemic, and the people of the City's search for the meaning of their existence. My only real gripe about the novel is the ending. I'm sure some people will love the ambiguity of it, but I was really hoping for more. The novel had so many twists and turns, but the whole time I was reading, I was thinking, 'Okay, this is the ending this is leading to, but that seems obvious, so he'll probably do something else.' But the author did not. But, that can be attributed to my getting to know these characters and wanted to know...more. Nonetheless, that is the only thing keeping me from giving this book a perfect rating. It is refreshing, in this age of the Da Vinci Code and dime a dozen crime thrillers, to see authors with this sort of imaginative scope, and the necessary writing chops to tell a whopper of a good story. Highly recommended for imaginatve folks.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 19, 2006
Since my return to the reading of novels 'The Brief History of the Dead' was a very good read. Before this particular novel the only thing I had read in more than 4 years was the Da Vinci Code. The brief history was not so much jaw dropping as it was to the point and completely in your face facts. It allowed you to analyze daeth and the afterlife in such a new way that it was hard for me put it down. At only 200 some odd pages I finished it in 2 short days. I enjoyed it throughout and would reccomend it to anyone looking to escape the normality of modern outlooks on life and death.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 15, 2008
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Posted May 2, 2011
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Posted January 23, 2011
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Posted August 5, 2009
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