The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier c. 2006 (252 pages—Random House)

This inventive story connects the struggles of corporate-sponsored “researchers” to the dramas of deceased people existing in a magical city. During the book, it becomes clear that researcher Laura Byrd—who spends most of the novel alone in the Artic—is the common link shared by those in the city, and it is her mind, her memory, that places them in limbo, living in the space between life and death.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “Andreas Andreopoulos, who had written code for computer games the whole forty years of his adult life, remembered leaping to pluck a leaf from a tree, and opening a fashion magazine to smell the perfume inserts, and writing his name in the condensation on a glass of beer. They preoccupied him—these formless, almost clandestine memories” (11).
  • “She had the absurd impression—a dream, really—that she was living inside a jellyfish. Early in the morning, before she was wholly awake, she would lie in her sleeping bag listening to the watery lurching of the wind and imagine that she was pumping slowly across the floor of the ocean as millions of yellow diatoms sailed around her. Dreaming was easier than worrying, and worrying was easier than crying, which was what she knew she would be reduced to if she didn’t keep a hard eye on herself” (30-31).
  • “Ever since she was a little girl, Laura had felt like a pioneer, passing over into the wilderness of the rest of her life. She remembered lying beneath her bed on her twelfth birthday, staring up at the orchardlike rows of the box springs and thinking how strange it was that she had no idea where she would be a year later, on the day she turned thirteen, and that she had had no idea where she would be today the year before, on the day she turned eleven. Certainly she could never have guessed that she would find herself lying underneath her bed staring at the box springs and wondering about the way time was put together. Why was it that everything that had happened to her in the past seemed so clear, but as soon as she turned toward the future, it all went dim and faded to nothing? Was that what it meant to be alive—moving from a brightly lit corridor into a darkened room at every step? Sometimes she felt that way” (54).
  • “They began to giggle, and then to laugh, catching themselves in one of those loops in which they realized how meager the humor of the original remark was, found the meagerness itself funny, and laughed even harder than they had before. Soon they were laughing at nothing more than the fact that they were laughing” (96).
  • “REPENT, FOR THE TIME IS AT HAND, his next day’s sign read, and he inscribed it, YOURS VERY TRULY, followed by his name, which was Coleman Kinzler, Ph.D. He had conferred the Ph.D. upon himself the same day he finished reading his Bible, at the age of thirty-three, for he knew that though he had never actually been to college, he was a doctor now in the eyes of the Lord” (105).
  • “He and Joyce had never known whether to treat each other as friends or antagonists. Or maybe it was just that their antagonism and their friendliness had been so inextricably tied up with each other that it was impossible for anybody to tell the two apart. It was through their arguments, their bickering, that they expressed their fundamental goodwill toward each other, and they both took a particular pleasure in pretending they disliked the other more than they did. It was part of the game” (142).
  • “His skin seemed to be coming loose from his skeleton, like a star casting off its final wobbling shell of gas. His eyes watered over and gradually lost their focus” (143).
  • “She imagined death as a wonderful melting. The cold would pass out of her blood. She would be so much warmer. No one would ever find her or know what had happened to her, no one would ever see her again, and what difference would it make? The world was over anyway. She would never meet another living soul” (167).
  • “For the past few weeks he had been conducting long conversations about the end of the world in his head. They were simple discussions that, if he wasn’t careful, quickly degenerated into savage arguments and then into swiftly moving imaginary debates in which various people, sometimes judges and prosecuting attorneys, sometimes just disembodied voices, accused him of bearing direct responsibility for the effects of the virus. Why didn’t you? they needled him. Why didn’t you do anything? But it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t. Fuck you. He was just a regular guy who happened to land a public relations gig with Coca-Cola” (185).
  • “At some point, when you were fourteen or fifteen, before you reached adulthood or knew who you were, you had to determine whether you were going to be the sort of person who held tight to every single thing that passed through your life, no matter how insignificant it was, or the sort of person who set it all adrift. Life was easier on the people who were willing to relax their grip, but she had decided to be the other sort of person, the sort who wouldn’t let go, and she had done her best to live up to that decision” (196).
  • “She shut her eyes and listened. Something unusual was happening to her. She was stretched around her heart, taut and firm like the skin of a drum, a perfectly sealed membrane that was beating, beating, beating. The heat of her blood was moving through her in millions of waves, more than she could possibly contain, and yet somehow she did contain them. She couldn’t hear anything else. The sound filled her until she shook, and then it filled the tent, and then it filled the world” (206).
  • “This was the kind of thing he would say every so often, a tight little knot of sentences, like the coil of rubber at the center of a golf ball, that would burst open in a spray of contradictory implications as soon as he tried to pick it apart” (212).
  • “And the spring came, with the sun breaching the horizon and the wind lifting the snow off the ice and the bay popping and cracking like the frame of an old house. Shoals of fish traced the open water and flocks of skua followed close behind them. Great chunks of glacier thawed and broke off into the ocean, carrying the blue-green ice of a thousand years ago. For a few hours each day the snow glistened like rubies in the drawn-out light of the sun, and for a few minutes, as the light grew stronger, it glistened like diamonds. No other spring in the world was anything like it” (223).
  • “But why did he remember only the things in his life that had hurt him? Why couldn’t he remember the things that had given him joy or caused him to smile: the jokes he had heard, the songs that had made him lift his arms in the air, the people who had loved him, whose cheeks he had touched with his fingers?” (249).
  • “When the walls came together and the bubble finally collapsed, this was where they would all end up: right here, between these benches and rustling trees. It would happen in a matter of days or weeks. There would be no way for them to avoid it. They would gather together in the clearing around the monument, however many thousand of them there were, and they would stand there shoulder to shoulder. They would listen to each other’s breath. And they would wait for that power that would pull them like a chain into whatever came next, into that distant world where broken souls are wrenched out of their histories” (252).

About Kelsey Maki

writer and English professor
This entry was posted in book, fiction, novel, sentences, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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