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Remembrance of persons passed

Shelf Space

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Vestal virgins by a cool oasis; a river to cross and a boatman who must be paid; your poked-out eye waiting for you in the outstretched hand of your wife. Most of the world's religions have at least a word or two to say about what we'll find when we leave this life. But what if the afterlife looked remarkably like, well, life?

The souls in Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead eat, drink and sleep, although their hearts never beat. Some of them work, but courtesy of a little dream logic that doesn't explain who buses the restaurant tables and drives the garbage trucks, they all have jobs they enjoy. They pass their days playing mah jong, reading the paper at a coffee shop, figuring out where to eat or what to cook for dinner. Bourgeois bohemian delight.

Only this isn't the "final resting place" of the dead. This is the city where the dead live for as long as there is someone still living to remember them. Where they go from there, even they do not know. But it looks to Luka Sims -- the city of the dead's newspaperman -- as though the dead are passing from memory much more quickly of late.

Back among the living, Laura Byrd -- a researcher for Coca-Cola -- struggles to survive alone in Antarctica, unaware that a pandemic is swiftly wiping out the human race. Isolated, she fills her mind with memories of her past and the people she has known: Not just her friends, family and lovers, but also the homeless guy with the Armageddon signs, a blind man she used to see in the lobby, and everyone else who ever made a sufficient impression to remain in some corner of her memory. They are enough to populate a small city.

Death, like magic and insanity, has always provided a good excuse for authors to go nonlinear with their writing, and Brockmeier uses the opportunity to gorgeous effect. Vivid images warp and self-transcend as memory slips loose from its weave, and the dead, forgotten, at last pass on from the familiar.

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