Why The Writing Works in Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Brief History of the Dead”

The Brief History of the dead

In his novel The Brief History of the Dead, Brockmeier constructs parallel worlds–one of the living and one of the dead, and both are just as real. Brockmeier’s use of concrete detail anchors the parallel reality firmly in the reader’s mind as an actual place–an anchoring that begins in the first chapter as the blind man, “Jim Singer, who managed the sandwich shop in the monument district,” and ‘the girl who liked to stand beneath the poplar tree in the park,” (3)  all describe their crossing from one world to the next. While the crossing experiences were different, they all had in common “that sound that everybody heard, the pulsing of a giant heart.” (4).

“Luka Sims had found an old mimeograph machine his very first week in the city and decided to use ti to produce a newspaper” (5)–a detail mimicked in the real world. As the population grows, so does this city of the dead–“Carson McCaughrean, who drove one of the sleek black taxis that roamed the streets, had to re-draw his maps once a week” (6). If one of the recently arrived dead believes he or she has arrived in heaven, it doesn’t take long for them to realize how wrong they are because “[w]hat 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?” (7). But, this isn’t hell either, for “[w]hat 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?”(7) The detail in these descriptions–a newspaper, which is something to hold and read, sounds, color, and smells–using all the senses, is what enables the reader to accept the reality of the city of the dead.

By using the first chapter full of intimate details, Brockmeier anchors the reader into this parallel universe; the reader is able to accept this alternate reality as a viable one, a belief that makes the rest of the novel work.

This parallel world exists because there is someone on earth that still remembers those who have died. Once no memory exists on earth of the dead, the citizens of the dead city move on to an unknown place. When events on earth begin to drastically alter the city of the dead, the two worlds begin to braid together, and are inseparable by novel’s end. The ending works because the reader accepts the reality of both worlds in the novel; the world of the familiar and the world of the dead, made familiar through the use of concrete and intimate detail that pulls on all the senses.

Brockmeier, Kevin. A Brief History of the Dead. New York: Pantheon Books. 2006. Print.


2 thoughts on “Why The Writing Works in Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Brief History of the Dead”

  1. Pingback: Fifth week roundup | Why The Writing Works

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