The first chapter of this book was published as a stand-alone short story in the New Yorker…and the first chapter is beautiful. It is a character sketch of a city and a few of its inhabitants. The city holds the dead; the people in it have crossed over in various ways: across a desert, through a forest, into an ocean. They all end up in the ever-expanding city.
They are those who are still remembered by the living, who still have a life of sorts in the memories of the people still alive. After an indeterminate amount of time, they disappear from the city, as the last person who personally remembers them dies. It’s a lovely set-up.
Various hints lead us to understand that the book is set in a near-future world of wars and terrorist attacks, and indeed the opening chapter ends with the city of the dead emptying out like a leaking bucket: the living are dying so rapidly that much of the population of the city of the dead are no longer remembered and so are disappearing.
Cut to the living world, where Laura Byrd is alone and forgotten in the Antarctic. Her hut is running out of heat, and she must trek across the ice to the larger shelter of a penguin research station, where she hopes to find a working radio and make contact with her employers, Coca Cola. The two worlds are interspersed chapter by chapter.
It’s well-told, it’s well-imagined – questions of how the city of the dead actually works (do they have to earn money to eat? Who stocks the supermarket?) are never answered, but much is implied. For example, one man is hassled by beggars, as he was in life – because he is unpleasant and so does not deserve the pleasant afterlife everyone else seems to be having? Because he has a guilty secret? Because he expects it?
But there’s something lacking in the story. I think Brockmeier wrote himself into a corner. Laura is the last person left alive in the entire world, and stuck in the world’s most hostile environment. There’s nowhere to go from there but where it does go; it’s just a question of how and when. The book, the character sketches of various people waiting in the city, is just a way of eking out the pages; lovely to read, interesting to think about, but in the end, pointless. There’s no hope left here and I’m not sure any story can be anything but lacking when there’s no hope.