Excerpts From “The City of the Dead”

Kevin Brockmeier’s ability to delicately and precisely describe the shades of emotion and human connection never fails to astonish me. Here are some of my favorite passages from The City of the Dead:

He and Joyce had never known whether to treat each other as friends or antagonists. Or maybe it was just that their antagonism and their friendliness had been so inextricably tied up with each other that it was impossible for anybody to tell the two apart. It was through their arguments, their bickering, that they expressed their fundamental goodwill toward each other, and they both took a particular pleasure in pretending they disliked the other more than they did. It was part of the game.

***

The game had to be played the same way every day, or the pieces would fall to the floor, the board would collapse, and the illusion that you were shaping your life- that you were in control- would break.

***

That was what insomnia was, after all- an excess of consciousness, an excess of life. Ever since she could remember, she had treated her life as an act of will, the you-can-do-anything-you-set-your-mind-to philosophy, but she couldn’t will herself to fall asleep. The only way to fall asleep was not to care whether you fell asleep or not: you had to relinquish your will. Most people seemed to think that you fell asleep and then started dreaming, but as far as Minny could tell, the process was exactly the reverse- you started dreaming and that enabled you to fall asleep. She wasn’t able to start dreaming, though, because she couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that she wasn’t already asleep. And anything that called her attention to that fact made it more likely that she would keep thinking about it, and a million little snowdrops of nervous tension would bud open inside her, and thus she wouldn’t start dreaming, and thus she wouldn’t be able to sleep.

What a mess.

***

After they had placed their order, Minny asked Luka, “Why didn’t you tell her about the accident?”

He stirred the ice in his glass. “She’s a complete stranger, and mostly crazy would be my guess. I died, remember? That car accident was one of the three most important things that ever happened to me- probably a close second, right after my birth. I’m not going to tell just anybody about it.”

“But you told me about it the same day we met. And I was a complete stranger.”

“You were a complete stranger,” he agreed. “And you’re also mostly crazy. But you were never just anybody.”

***

There was no one and nothing she could ever know well enough to make it stay. It had been one of her chief preoccupations during the last few years of her life: the notion that there was not enough time left for her to really get to know anyone. Most people would say it was ridiculous. She understood that. She was only in her mid-thirties, after all. But whenever she would come into contact with someone new, someone whose stories she didn’t already know by heart, sooner or later that person would start talking about days gone by, and she would get the sad, sickening feeling that too much had already happened to him and it was far too late for her to ever catch up. How could she ever hope to know someone whose entire life up to the present was already a memory? For that matter, how could anyone hope to know her? The way she saw it, the only people she had any prayer of knowing or being known by were the people who had been a part of her life since she was a child, and she hardly even spoke to them anymore. Just her mother and a friend or two from high school, and that was about it. As for everybody else she met, well- there were too many shadows behind a person and there was too little light ahead. That was the problem. And there was no force in the world that would remedy the situation. People talked about love as a light that would illuminate the darkness that people carried around with them. And yes, Minny was capable of loving, but so what? As far as she could tell, her love had never improved things for her or anyone else, so what good was it? She could never rely on it. It weighed no more than a nickel. It was only after she died and met Luka that the vistas of time seemed to open back up for her, and she began to think that maybe she could know someone else as well as she knew herself- that her love might be enough to make a difference, after all.

But sometimes she would start to feel the death in things again, and that old doubt would come washing back over her, and she would fill with the terrible familiar fear that nothing had changed at all. She could never be whole in the eyes of anyone else. No one else could ever be whole in her own eyes. She had known it all along.

***

It was so ridiculous that she had to laugh. He was always saying things like that- at the least expected times, in the least expected places. No one else had ever been able to make her laugh like he could. No one else had ever tried so hard. No one else had ever known her well enough.

Not a soul.

Unintentionally, I seem to have mostly marked passages that I feel directly relate to how I feel about… oh, you know.

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