The title of Kevin Brockmeier's novel refers to an unnamed city that serves as a way station for those who have recently died. They suddenly find themselves in the city, by means that are unique for each person, and they live there for decades, only to disappear suddenly and without warning. Where they go, if they go anywhere, is unknown. People in the city know they are dead, and they remember the "real" world they have recently left. They can even deduce certain factors governing the links between the two worlds. They wonder over sudden fluctuations in the city's population, sudden influxes of massive numbers of people, the disappearance of equally large numbers. The city mysteriously expands and shrinks in response to the number of inhabitants.
Life in the city of the dead goes on just as it did in the real world. People have jobs, relationships, problems, and so on. Husbands and wives, parents and children, are reunited, though soon enough again, as people inevitably disappear, they are parted.
This is the premise of Brockmeier's novel. He develops it in a full and imaginative way. The novel is infused with melancholy, and though the prose is spare and economical, in ways the novel reminds one of Poe (especially of the poem "The City in the Sea"). Once it gets going, the novel fluctuates in focus between the city of the dead and certain individuals in the "real" world.
The novel is a fiction, of course, a fantasy. It's also a meditation on mortality, the possibility (or impossibility) of an afterlife, on the perishable nature of our civilized world, on our propensity towards self-destruction. Insofar as the author builds a credible and even conceivable afterlife, the novel is convincing. But its world is a complete fabrication. What is interesting about the world is that it bears little clear resemblance to Christian notions of the afterlife. Most depictions of the world beyond are in some way founded on literal Christian notions of heaven and hell. In fact, there is more in common between Brockmeier's afterlife and the Hades of Homer.
Ultimately, as the book winds to a conclusion (I have omitted many details so as not to ruin the reading experience), Brockmeier can't sustain the illusion, and the novel ends in an indeterminate and unsatisfying way. Nonetheless, it's a generally successful and enjoyable and profoundly sad book that reminds us of our own short term on this earth.