Ktismatics

8 August 2011

The Brief History of the Dead by Brockmeier, 2006

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 11:16 am

When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had traveled across a desert of living sand. First he had died, he said, and then — snap! — the desert. He told the story to everyone who would listen, bobbing his head to follow the sound of their footsteps. Showers of red grit fell from his beard. He said that the desert was bare and lonesome and that it had hissed at him like a snake. He had walked for days and days, until the dunes broke apart beneath his feet, surging up around him to lash at his face. Then everything went still and began to beat like a heart. The sound was as clear as any he had ever heard. It was only at that moment, he said, with a million arrow points of sand striking his skin, that he truly realized he was dead…

*  *  *

Recently a friend told me about Textermination, a 1992 novel by Christine Brooke-Rose, in which a bunch of fictional characters gather at a convention to figure out how to keep themselves from dying off. The premise is that these characters live in the imaginations and memories of their readers. If people stop reading the books, then the characters contained in those books stop existing. So I was surprised the other day while browsing the library shelves to find this novel by Brockmeier. After you die you live on in people’s memories: surely you’ve heard that supposedly reassuring alternative to a real afterlife. Brockmeier’s story populates this sort of afterlife in his story: you go there after you die, and you stay for as long as there’s someone still alive who remembers you. After everyone who remembers you is dead, then you disappear from this particular afterlife.

The premise is intriguing, and the first chapter is engaging, but my thought when I reached chapter two was that there wasn’t enough here on which to build a whole novel. I did find the novel disappointing, and it turns out that the first chapter had previously won awards as a stand-alone short story — maybe that should have been the end of it. Having finished, though, I no longer regard the premise as intrinsically limiting.

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