In The Brief History of the Dead, Brockmeier uses the idea that, after a person dies, they remain in a world and state similar to life as long as there is someone still among the living who remembers them. When all those who remember them have died, they move on to the next stage of death, which remains a mystery.
The first half of the book held my complete focus. I was absorbed. Brockmeier kept me in a state of suspense, teasing me through the mystery of what exactly was going on, but after the details came into focus, the story quickly lost momentum, because there is not enough plot to keep this book moving. The story derailed with long stretches of prose and pages of description that may or may not have held some second meaning. It left me with an overall sense of 'why?'
The story itself -and where it doesn't lead- is probably what bothered me. This book has a great concept, and a good start, but it doesn't carry through with enough story or purpose. Everything in this book just is. And there's nothing anyone can do about it. There is no change and there is no potential for change, not for the world or for any of the characters.
The even-numbered chapters follow Laura Byrd, still among the living, trapped in the Antarctic. These scenes in the icy tundra were the hardest for me to get through. Since Laura is alone, there is very little dialogue, only page after page of prose and description. Admittedly, I am a dialogue person, but there is a good way to do large lengths of prose, and in my opinion this was not it. What was meant to be suspenseful or heart-pounding, was made slow and plodding by the tragically impersonal way it was related.
The odd-numbered chapters are devoted to the dead in memoriam, and these were much more interesting. It was the reason I liked this book so much in the beginning, the reason I so hoped to love it. But Brockmeier tried to focus on too many individual characters who had nothing to add to the overall story. Instead of evolving into some story-driving subplot, the dead only served as points for reflection on life. They don't even experience development or much personal revelation. Everyone had questions, but no one got answers, including me. Again, it filled me with the frustration of 'why, why, why?'
This book reaches at times into the high-brow end of literary fiction, a little too wordy and all-encompassing for my taste. With so many dead characters, and Laura Byrd contemplating her own demise, there is plenty of reflection on lives lived. In fact, the main focus of the book seemed to be remembering tiny, inconsequential details of one's life. It got stale fairly fast.
I feel like Brockmeier was trying to be deep and insightful, but sacrificed everything else in pursuit of it. Relating to the characters became difficult, and so did cheering them on because by the halfway point I realized it was in vain. There were great opportunities with this setup, but it wound up feeling disjointed, unfocused, and at the end, disappointing.
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier gets two stars and shuffled off to the Not To Read column.