Reading this book, I started developing a theory about literary fiction; the ones I like the most (and maybe the most widely read?) literary novels have some sort of genre element at their centers, driving the plot. A Brief History of the Dead was probably sold as literary fiction, considering the author's publishing history, or perhaps it was pitched as "speculative fiction," or literary fiction containing fantastical elements. But really, it's a well-written fantasy.
Like most theories that are percolating in the far reaches of my brain, it just sort of slipped out of my mouth one day at lunch, and I immediately began to wonder if it was true. Look at The Time Traveler's Wife (sci-fi, fantasy), Mystic River (mystery, and yes, I consider it literary), The Girl in the Glass and The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque (mystery/fantasy by Jeffrey Ford), The Interpretation of Murder, A Conspiracy of Paper, and one of my favorite books, The Dogs of Babel, where the main character, a linguist, tries to teach his dog to talk so the dog can tell him how his wife died. Even books like Midwives and Toni Morrison's opus have really strong genre elements of plot styles running through them.
Of course, there are books that disprove my theory - The Kite Runner, The Life of Pi, The Secret History, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius, Douglas Coupland, Snow, and on and on and on. But let's not talk about these books. Let's talk about literary fiction that has genre elements. Because I like to read it. And I'm hoping there will be a lot more of it.
The premise of A Brief History of the Dead is taken from the tendency of some African communities to divide humans into three categories: 1) People who are still alive on earth 2) People who just recently died, and are still remembered by people who are alive. These people are not truly dead, and live in The City. They will stay in The City until the last person who knew them dies. 3) If no one on earth remembers a person, then that person is truly dead. The African name for this is zumani. They can still be remembered in general way, or the way that famous people are remembered (Socrates, Hitler, Elvis, etc.), but no one has seen their faces, so it doesn't count.
Half of the novel is set in The City, where all the remembered dead people are (this living dead). Their lives are basically the same, except they don't have a heartbeat (or maybe even a heart), which is very convenient for people who had high cholesterol or other heart problems. Once the last person who knew them on earth dies, they simply vanish. No one knows where they go.
The other half of the novel is set in Antartica, where Laura Byrd is totally isolated from all other humans, and is slowly running out of supplies. Her isolation is an asset, because a deadly virus sweeps the earth (The Blinks) and kills everyone but her. The reader doesn't know this right away, but you figure it out from the chapters set in The City, which is changing hourly. Because so many people are dying so fast, they crowd the city, but an hour or two later, when there is no one left on Earth to remember them, they disappear. The city is getting smaller and smaller fast. Soon, the only people left are those who Laura remembers.
What will happen to this after life set-up if Laura dies? Where do people go when they leave The City? Who caused the virus, and how did it spread? What happens to The City if it is completely emptied? Does it disappear? These are the questions that keep you reading. Which brings me to the other difference between books like this one (literary fiction with genre influences), and straight up genre fiction - in genre fiction, all your questions get answered. Usually. Not so in A Brief History of the Dead. Not so in most of the literary fiction that I read.
We find out about the virus. We have an idea of what will happen (and what is happening) to The City, sort of. The last chapters of the novel are these dreamy scenes, which were gorgeously written, (like the rest of the novel), but I didn't find satisfying. Brockmeier spends a lot of detail on these last, fleeting, surreal scenes, which I found pretty pointless. I didn't understand the importance of these scenes. Maybe the answers I'm looking for are there. But I don't think so.
An interesting side note is that I picked up a copy of Kevin Brockmeier's Things That Fall from the Sky a couple of years ago, which is a short story collection. I didn't like it. I don't think I like Brockmeier unless he's writing stuff with genre elements. Which puts him in the same category as Jonathan Lethem. To me at least.
Gripes aside, The Brief History of the Dead is a good and fast read. Y'all should read it.