How many people could you remember, if you sat down and tried to make a list? We're not just talking about folks you know well, but anyone whose face you can conjure up your mail carrier, that girl at the coffee shop, an old teacher. In Kevin Brockmeier's new novel, an ever-shifting city of the dead is populated by the souls of those who have died but are still remembered by the living. These folks hang around in an afterlife that's pretty much like regular life reading, eating, working, possibly changing but never aging until the last person who remembers them dies. Then they vanish. It's a city built on memory, and memory makes a fragile building block.
The city's already impermanent population is threatened when, back in the living world, a bio-engineered virus starts to spread. Journalist Luka Sims, who runs the dead city's only newspaper, hears and publishes the early reports of the plague from new arrivals. With incredible speed, the virus kills millions. Wave after wave of the dead arrive in the city only to vanish hours later. Before long, Luka finds himself without a single reader, apparently alone in a desolate city. Meanwhile, back in the living world, Laura Byrd is on a research expedition in the Antarctic. When the radio dies, her two partners venture out to the nearest research station in an effort to contact headquarters. When they fail to return and Laura's supplies start running low, she has no choice but to go after them. Her epic journey across the frozen landscape and, simultaneously, through her own memories is utterly gripping and beyond suspenseful. This novel began life as a short story in The New Yorker, and a feature film based on that story is said to be in the works. But Brockmeier's tale is so vividly imagined that filming it seems almost superfluous. He writes with cinematic clarity but never sacrifices one speck of mystery. The book may serve as an indictment of such contemporary threats as biological weapons and unfettered corporate power, but it's also simply a beautiful story. If there's one key lesson here, it is that all actions have consequences and people can leave indelible impressions. Kevin Brockmeier certainly has. Becky Ohlsen writes from the living city of Portland, Oregon.