The hype surrounding Kevin Brockmeier's first novel has been unusually breathless. Not only is he "an award-winning short-story writer", but Chris Columbus, the auteur of the first two Harry Potter films, is to direct a film adaptation. Given Columbus's previous form, it comes as a relief that The Brief History of the Dead is not a sentimental, over-cute examination of an afterlife in the vein of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, but something more interesting and intellectually daring.
In the near future, the world is being ravaged by a deadly, highly infectious virus - known as "the blinks" on account of its distinctive symptoms - which originated when a batch of Coca-Cola was sabotaged by disgruntled former employees. As a PR stunt, Coca-Cola has despatched the "wildlife specialist" Laura Byrd to Antarctica to find the last remaining source of pure water in the world. Laura finds herself at a disintegrating research station, away from her colleagues. Brockmeier describes her attempted escape and subsequent travels in a gripping, realist style punctuated with quasi-poetic meditations on the icy wastes that surround her.
As if this weren't unworldly enough, Brockmeier throws in another storyline in which he riffs on the idea of there being some kind of purgatorial realm between earth and heaven or hell to which those who die of the virus go. Among its inhabitants are Laura's former lover, an unnamed blind man and Laura's parents. It is described with a comforting sense of normality. As Brockmeier asks: "What kind of heaven had the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and chewing gum on the pavement, and the smell of fish rotting by the river . . . what kind of hell, for that matter, had bakeries and dog-wood trees and perfect blue days that made the hairs on the back of your neck rise on end?"
Yet there are problems here as well. It emerges that people remain in this realm only while there are people alive on earth who remember them. As soon as the people on earth die, they must move on to the next world, which, it is hinted, is more mysterious still.
The opening chapter brilliantly outlines the rules of this transitory half-world, where existence is always counterpointed by the sound of a "drumlike thumping noise", which suggests either the beating of a heart or the Last Trump. Yet this is also a place in which churches of all religions coexist, providing comfort to those who knew nothing of what was to come.
It gradually becomes clear that Brockmeier's interest is in a very human, down-to-earth kind of compassion. He contrasts the machinations of corrupt big business in the real world with the simple acts of kindness, fellowship and love in the afterlife. The implication is not only that no man is an island, but that humanity's essential goodness can thrive only when removed from a damaged and dying planet. For a while, this is persuasive and stylishly expressed. However, Brockmeier's vision becomes limited by the rules he sets himself. There are perfunctory romantic sub-plots, two-dimensional characters and some banal undergraduate philosophising.
Even at the novel's modest length, the limitations of the concept become obvious. By the end, you are forced to conclude that a visionary short story has outgrown its natural length, resulting in a book that, like the afterlife it depicts, is neither one thing nor the other.