Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

The City is inhabited by the recently departed, who reside there only as long as they remain in the memories of the living. Among the current residents of this afterlife are Luka Sims, who prints the only newspaper in the City, with news from the other side; Coleman Kinzler, a vagrant who speaks the cautionary words of God; and Marion and Phillip Byrd, who find themselves falling in love again after decades of marriage.

On Earth, Laura Byrd is trapped by extreme weather in an Antarctic research station. She’s alone and unable to contact the outside world: her radio is down and the power is failing. She’s running out of supplies as quickly as she’s running out of time. (Synopsis source: amazon.com)

The Brief History of the Recently Dead had the appearance of a soft sci-fi novel with literary inclinations, which caught my interest and urged me to look past its bland premise: a pleasantly mundane, purgatorial afterlife set against a harrowing, painful earthly existence. I was therefore disappointed to find that the most interesting thing about The Brief History turned out to be that rather uninspiring premise. The City is entertaining enough, but when the novelty of Brockmeier’s afterlife concept wears off, it becomes a dull read, in large part because Brockmeier fails to generate empathy for his already dead characters or insert meaning into their existences. There is no reason why the reader should care that any of these people still exist, or are doomed to soon not exist. They are not interesting human beings; they do not have fates, destinies, or concerns which need to be addressed.

Yet The Brief History is at its most boring when it chronicles Laura Byrd’s ill-fated trek towards death. As she slowly comes to the realization that an epidemic has left her alone on Earth, Laura questions her existence, drifts through a series of mundane childhood memories, and plays word association games. She also speculates about the role of the corporation she worked for in the epidemic, which is intended (probably) to create some sort of existential crisis but fails to do so. Laura is no more interesting than the people in The City. Alone, unaffected by the madness, genius, or tragedy that makes the internal journey of an isolated character memorable, Laura is like a performer who stands in the middle of a spotlight and does nothing.

The Brief History of the Dead fails most deeply when it forgets that a novel must give a reader some reason to keep going. In other words, The Brief History required momentum which it did not have. There is no suspense in The Brief History. There is no need for closure. No cliff-hanger. No mystery. And, though it appeared that there might be one near the end, no literary meaning either. It seemed inevitable that Laura would die. That when she did die, the City would probably disappear. I waited for that to mean something within Brockmeier’s grand scheme of existence, but it did not. Not a very satisfying conclusion to a novel that answers few questions and seems to pose even less.

Not recommended 

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

In a quiet suburb of Detroit, the five Lisbon sisters–beautiful, eccentric, and obsessively watched by the neighborhood boys–commit suicide one by one over the course of a single year. As the boys observe them from afar, transfixed, they piece together the mystery of the family’s fatal melancholy, in this hypnotic and unforgettable novel of adolescent love, disquiet, and death. Jeffrey Eugenides evokes the emotions of youth with haunting sensitivity and dark humor and creates a coming-of-age story unlike any of our time. (Synopsis source: www.amazon.com)

The Virgin Suicides may be one of the most unconventional coming of age stories I’ve read, if only because its protagonists end up dead instead of functioning adults at the end of the story. It is in that unconventionality that both the best and the worst parts of this novel lie – Eugenides’ attempt to capture the essence of youth’s fragility and temporality is successful only insofar as it exists completely outside of the real world. In other words, The Virgin Suicides should be read as a fairy tale. Whether or not Eugenides meant for his novel to be read this way, he makes it very easy; like any (good) fantasy writer would, Eugenides spends enough time building a self-contained world that one can become lost inside his novel’s universe without paying attention to the rules and realities that govern our outside world. The dreamy, surreal suburb in which the novel is set is historical, otherworldly, and above all macabre: it is a world in which five pretty girls in white dresses killing themselves violently is an aesthetic spectacle that simultaneously horrifies and enthralls their neighbors.

This is where the problem comes in. Eugenides writes very absorbingly. That makes it easy to forget how deeply, profoundly problematic this novel is, especially given that The Virgin Suicides is stylistically voyeuristic, narrated by neighborhood boys who have a decidedly sexual fascination with the Lisbon sisters and see their deaths as increased fuel for that fascination. If Eugenides wishes to comment on the fleeting nature of adolescence – and how that nature makes it beautiful – he has done so in the most sexist, morbid way possible. At the end of The Virgin Suicides, I was disappointed with my reading experience because the entire story felt like an elaborate gag to drag the reader into the faulted, narrow mindset of the neighborhood boys, who grow older but seem frozen in perpetual adolescence along with the objects of their fascination. Yet Eugenides writes his novel so that the Lisbon sisters become inhuman idols, held above the reach of ordinary people like the boys who narrate the story. They are not characters so much as they are things; they are not subjects so much as they are objects.

The Virgin Suicides could have been a brilliant novel if it were written with an ironic spirit, but I find no indication that it was. A story whose narrators are vague shadows that speak in plural first person and whose main protagonists are attractively doomed to never even being characters (a fate much worse than death in a novel) is not a story that can hold the reader’s attention without resorting to sentimentalist tripe. Which is what Eugenides did. The Virgin Suicides is an absorbing and beautiful read, but you may feel cheated when you reach its end.

Not recommended

The Inverted Forest by John Dalton

Summer, 1996, at Kindermann Forest Camp in rural Missouri. The elderly camp director finds his counselors swimming naked two days before camp is to open and fires all of them. As a result, new counselors must be hired and brought to camp. One of them is Wyatt Huddy, a genetically disfigured young man who has been living in a Salvation Army facility. All his life, large, gentle, diligent Wyatt has been misjudged because of his physical appearance. Along with the other new counselors he arrives ready to care for children. To their astonishment, they learn that for the first two weeks of the camping season they will be responsible for 104 severely developmentally disabled adults, all of them wards of the state.

In this world away from the world, the new counselors and disabled campers begin to reveal themselves. Most are well-intentioned, others unprepared. Some harbor dangerous inclinations. Soon Wyatt is called upon to prevent a terrible tragedy. In doing so, he commits an act whose repercussions will alter his own life and the lives of the other Kindermann Forest staff members for years to come. (Synopsis source: www.daltonnovel.com)

The Inverted Forest takes place mostly in Kindermann Forest Camp, an enchantingly isolated, almost eerie world unto itself, a microcosm with as much baggage as each of the counselors who become last minute replacements for more carefully selected candidates in the beginning of this novel. As one might expect, some of the counselors have been less than honest about their backgrounds – in fact, The Inverted Forest depends heavily on deceiving appearances and mistakes in perception to tell its story. But for the first two thirds of the novel, Dalton chooses to keep the nature of those deceptions vague without ever becoming “mysterious” in a heavy-handed way, as authors less gifted with subtlety are wont to do. Instead, he drags the reader into the world of the camp not as a spectator, but as a silent participant, giving them the same information that is given to everyone else but building intricate layers of foreshadowing around his hidden truths that feel obvious only in retrospect.

Most prone to the double-edged knife that these hidden truths present is the novel’s main character, Wyatt, whose facial features resemble those of a retarded person due to a genetic disorder – one which, unbeknownst to most strangers, has no effect on his intelligence. On first glance, many people assume Wyatt to be retarded, an impression that has had a profound effect on Wyatt’s perception of himself and his true intelligence. Throughout Forest, Wyatt questions the relationship between his intelligence and his appearance again and again, a question that he suddenly cannot ignore when a troupe of mentally retarded adult campers are under his care. After so many years being treated as if he is mentally retarded, Wyatt has deluded himself into thinking that he is retarded simply because other people have always thought so. When he is suddenly thrust into the role of a person of able intelligence, his identity is fractured. Or, perhaps, one might say, inverted.

If we are to accept the somewhat cliche but eternally valuable “appearances are deceiving” motif as one that is principal to The Inverted Forest, then Wyatt’s personal narrative becomes one that is emblematic of the problems that strike Kindermann Forest Camp when appearances, in lieu of real information, are used to make judgments. Dalton executes this motif as beautifully as anyone reasonably can after it’s been done so many times without drawing the reader away from his plot in the process.

However, there are the last 100 pages. When I reached page 212, which completes Part I of the novel in my copy, I was entranced and very much impressed by what I assumed to be Forest’s conclusion. Then I kept reading. And it dragged on. And on. For approximately 120 more pages, which is 120 more than I needed or wanted from this novel. It appears that Dalton wished to give his main character some sense of redemption and closure, which would have been okay except for that he also dragged readers through choppy, epilogue-ish forays into the lives of the other counselors fifteen years later in a dull, self-indulgent epilogue to what would have otherwise been a very well-written novel.

Recommended