Hope Floats

Wet hot American bummer: Chris Adrian's post-flood Magic Mountain

Water may be grief's most figurative and convincing form, destructive in onslaught and lingering in aftereffect. Recent events have made mud of God's covenant—the one about the rainbow and never again destroying the earth with flooding—and it’s hard to read a book like Chris Adrian’s new novel The Children’s Hospital (McSweeney’s, 615 pp., $24), with its dead under seven miles of water, and not think about Katrina and tsunamis, and then backward and landward to September 11 and other traumas that, if personal, also demanded some kind of collective notice.

Adrian is a pediatrician in Boston who moonlights as a writer (his first novel is 2001’s Gob’s Grief) while at the same time moonlighting as a student at the Harvard Divinity School. He isn't sure how religious he is, although, he says, "I have a lot of religious obsessions"—John Calvin, German theologians—and at some point will "clarify a response to the question of what exactly I believe about these sorts of things to the higher-ups at school." Take away God, or at least the readymade structure for belief and plotting, and you get the apocalypse as experimental fiction. The novel floats humanity's survivors in a pediatric hospital, where a slogan, "Just do the work," is formulated to help the days pass, "sanity in some measure invested in the hospitality of the hospital."

Adrian calls writing about a community of survivors "daunting": "It's suddenly very important not to be a pathetic hack." Before 9-11, he says, his was "a very different book, much shorter and possessed of considerably stubbier ambitions." Now the novel tops 600 pages and never lets up. It's stintingly fun and thoroughly challenging. The book follows the hospital's inhabitants as they go through the stages of shock and grief and acceptance, drawing up a list of reasons why, "the straw that broke the patience and the promise"—things like the fat woman on her loop from table to buffet, who "made one trip too many and cost us the world"—to which the reply is always, "That doesn't seem like enough."

Adrian: Saints elsewhere
photo: John Earle
Adrian: Saints elsewhere

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  • Asked whether he believes the model of unified experience, offered in much post- traumatic fiction, is an idealized one, Adrian says he’d like to think "our worlds shrink and consolidate somehow," and that these situations “either remind people of their decency or else inspire them to better behavior.” But he concedes that this potential "quickly spoils or wilts as soon as the pressure is off"; the "status quo" is "unchanging isolation." In The Children’s Hospital, lamentation and reflection fall away: "People were dating, and making friends, and having bitter, comfortless sex"—then electing governments, redefining marriage, and devising outrageous new porn for the adults and "fancy new cartoons" for the children.

    Like the best horror writers, Adrian conceives a savior and then, swiftly, withdraws her. His is med student Jemma, who learned early the levels of sorrow and the punishments of loving when everyone she loves dies. Unable to cry for the earth's dead, Jemma nonetheless gains a supernatural healing ability and eradicates all sickness before she's stymied by a terrible last disease. Questions of realism can’t govern a work like The Children’s Hospital, which Adrian calls a "tattered, flea market version" of The Magic Mountain, when asked about any connection to that sanatorium-set epic of Europe: He invents to keep the hounds at bay. Responding to the events of the past few years, Adrian, or his deputized angel, arranges "a final lesson, after which everything will have to be different, forever." But, he says, "I don't think it worked very well. I'm still really depressed." This is the novel's final bravery: Adrian's willingness to say that frivolity and detachment can be judged, even if it doesn't change anything, and even if it doesn't make us feel any better.


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