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.”
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.
Culture critic Klosterman has a knack for explaining why you like plenty of things you suspect you shouldn’t. The essays in Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas apotheosize all things pop with a dollop of either irony or earnestness, depending on where you’re coming from. Barnes & Noble Chelsea, 675 Sixth Ave, 212-727-1227 Martin Mulkeen
Brooklyn Book Festival
Borough Hall Plaza
Borough President Marty Markowitz hosts this all-day event celebrating the borough’s abundant literary talent. Among the paticipants are Paula Fox, brother act Phillip and Leonard Lopate, History of Love author Nicole Krauss, and Myla Goldberg (the only writer there to have an indie rock song written for them). Also appearing will be Jonathan Lethem. Kosiya Shalita
Russell’s story “Haunting Olivia” appeared in The New Yorker‘s Debut Fiction issue last year. In it two brothers, dumped into their grandmother’s care, attempt to contact their dead sister. It’s included here in the highly anticipated collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.
BookCourt, 163 Court Street, Bklyn, 718-875-3677 K.S.
‘Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism From the Pages of Bitch Magazine’
Editors Lisa Jervis and Andi Zeisler celebrate a decade of Bitch magazine with this best-of companion, filled with clawing, scratching, and scrutinizing essays on the media imagery that distorts our views on gender. Founded as a Xerox-and-staple zine to rail against the complacency of so-called “postfeminism,” Bitch has changed in appearance, but its mission remains the same: mining the pop-cultural landscape and calling every bluff. New School, 66 W 12th, rm 510, 212-229-5488 M.M.
Ken Kalfus & Mark Z. Danielewski
In Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, Marshall and Joyce are going through a typical New York divorce, separated but still living together. One morning he arrives late to work at the World Trade Center, while she is scheduled to depart Newark on United flight 93. After narrowly avoiding disaster, each is secretly gleeful at the thought their other, bitter half has not been so lucky. Kalfus’s tart black comedy follows this supremely selfish couple as they wage ferocious small-scale war through post–9-11 New York. Danielewski, author of the spooky-haunted- mansion novel House of Leaves, will read from his new mind-bender Only Revolutions. KGB Bar, 85 E 4th, 212-505-3360 K.S.
Fragile Things, master fantasist Gaiman’s latest gathering of poetry and prose, takes us through the apocalypse, hell, and then back to reality for another go. As Gaiman’s imagination sprawls and swells, we sympathize with his helpless cameraman in “The Day the Saucers Came,” who “could not get far enough away” to record the scale and confluence of such supernatural calamity. Fashion Institute of Technology, Great Hall, 227 W 27th, 212-217-7717 M.M.
The stories in Boudinot’s first collection, The Littlest Hitler, combine wide-eyed innocence with streaks of perversity. In “Blood Relations” a family prepares its Wednesday-night “fancy meal”; on the menu is Carl, the goalie on the local kids’ soccer team. Davy, the title story’s nine-year-old protag, sees nothing wrong with going to school dressed as a pint-size Adolf on Halloween, until he sees classmate Lisette done up as Anne Frank—and quickly discovers the horror of being a middle school outcast. Barnes & Noble, 4 Astor Place, 212-420-1322 K.S.
The introduction to Elliott’s slender new collection My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up begins: “This could have been a memoir. It isn’t.” The decision to label it fiction is only a “poor marketing choice.” As if the ensuing tales of strippers, drug users, and sadomasochists weren’t brutal enough, now we know it’s all true. Elliott, author of the 2004 VLS Favorite Happy Baby, reads with Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The Strand, 828 Bway, 212-473-1452 K.S.
Wisdom and dexterity are on display in Atwood’s first collection of stories in 15 years. The title story, “The Bad News,” explores the dread and arrival of unfortunate tidings across the ages. The good news is that even the vaguely foreboding receives vivid description: “the bad news as a huge bird, with the wings of a crow and the face of my Grade Four schoolteacher . . . rancid teeth, wrinkly frown . . . carrying a basket of rotten eggs.” Barnes and Noble Union Square, 33 E 17th, 212-253-0810
Between the recipes (Zucchini Fritters and Gourmet Rabbit snacks) and the nonstop shtick, Sedaris’s guide to entertaining, I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, contains practical advice for novice and professional hosts alike: Keep a party log to record past successes and failures. That way you’ll remember “if he likes capers or raisins, prefers pickles to cucumbers, or has allergies to kelp, figs, or poisonous mushrooms.” Get a taste of Sedaris-style hospitality as each audience member receives
a cupcake made from her own recipe. Symphony Space, 2537 Bway, 212-864-1414
‘Up Is Up, But So Is Down’
The writing collected in Up Is Up documents the “Downtown Literary Scene” that spawned concurrently with punk and flourished through the ’80s and early ’90s alongside the art boom in Soho. Edited by Voice contributor Brandon Stosuy, the book gathers poetry, stories, flyers, and photos from the decades. Original scensters Lynne Tillman and Bob Holman will be on hand to keep the wild party going. Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 108 Orchard, 212-431-0233
***Correction: The original version of this article had a wrong date for this event. The date has been fixed.