Finished listening to Kevin Brockmeier’s fine The Brief History of the Dead. I’d like to take two views of this book – the first, a general review of the story itself, and second, a look at how it works as an audiobook. A lot of purists turn their noses up at the audiobook – but, more on that later.
Looking at BHD as a book, it excels in so many ways. I’m not able to comb through the audio for passages to quote here (for reasons previously explained), but for a look at this great writing, click here. It’s the first chapter, and it’s a hook. The general premise behind the story is outlined at the beginning: when we die, we go into a purgatory of sorts, in this case a fully functioning giant city. We continue here, at the same age we were when we died. Being in this city is dependent on continuing to be in someone’s memories in "the real world" – so, once everyone that knew you, remembered you in some way – once they are all dead, you vanish from this city, ostensibly gone to your final reward. It’s a simple enough theory, but Brockmeier takes it and spins gold. For those allergic to purely literary looks at such weighty issues, there’s a nice bit of suspense plot thrown in there – Laura Byrd, a researcher at the bottom of the world, learns that a virus (whether it is man made or natural is never completely clear, but he lets just enough possibility of terrorism slip in to make things feel very current) has exterminated millions upon millions of people. Is she the last person on Earth? If not, can she reach anyone else, someone who has found an antidote? What happens to the city as millions of people "here" die?
In a sense, this book nicely jumps between fiction, fantasy, science fiction, and literary fiction so often that you soon lose track of the differences in your head, and it becomes a story about memory, about death and the different types of death, about the differences between the spirit and the soul and the body. It’s intelligent without being stultifying; Brockmeier knows where the line is between a good story and windy philosophy, and his dances around that line show the work of a writer that isn’t afraid to dig at the truth.
Yes, it works as an audiobook. The reader is Richard Poe, and he differentiates well between the different voices without being corny. It actually helps, in a way, to have these different voices all sounding very similar (being spoken as they are by Mr. Poe) – fits in with the narrative. It is easy to pick up the thread, if you listen in fits and starts – commuting, waiting rooms, bathrooms. (I have no shame.)
I had intended to get into the plusses/minuses of audiobooks, but this post is overdue as it is, so I’ll save that for another time.