Sorrow floats

By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  March 2, 2007

As for choosing to go to divinity school, Adrian thought it would aid in the type of medicine he wanted eventually to practice: pediatric oncology. “Not that Hegel comes up when you’re about to inflict some miserable life-changing diagnosis on a parent,” he says, but it would help in providing “some way to think about the suffering of children that does not make you want to kill yourself.” Still, he says, with no feigned humility, “I think I’ve still managed to remain an idiot about most of this stuff despite having been in school for a year and a half.”

I wonder what being a non-idiot about this stuff would look like. Here, Adrian pauses and looks down at his mug of tea. “I think I will always feel that way,” he begins. “But if I could one day -” he stops. Half a minute passes. He starts again, and stops. And again. “If I had some grip -” Another long pause. He looks back up at me, and then: “If I could tell myself the story where there is some sort of apprehendable progression from Augustine to the Scholastics to the Enlightenment to the 19th-century liberal Protestant theologians to the 20th century with Dewey and William James to Martin Luther King to now, where nobody really cares and it’s all fallen apart and the only people who talk about religion are the sort of Bible-thumping exclusionists - if I could make that all make sense in my head, even for, like, 20 minutes, I would feel like less of an idiot.”

Maybe it’s not all supposed to make sense. Maybe it’s not all supposed to fit together. But Adrian says he wants to be one of the people to convince himself that it does, even for a moment. “Part of that,” he says, “is having a dreadful fear that anything I might possibly come up with as a fiction writer is something that somebody already thought of in a more interesting way 700 years ago. Even though they were writing theology and I’m writing fiction.”

Things fall apart
The word “doom” appears again and again in The Children’s Hospital. From the first pages of the book, ruin rules. Before the flood even starts, Jemma’s mother, father, brother, and lover have all died, through suicide, accidents, and illness: “One day she woke up crying and knew it for sure: everyone she had loved was dead, and everyone she loved would die.” In the world Adrian imagines, everything has fallen apart. “Depravity passes down through the ages,” he writes, “and our parents, molested by regret, conceive us under the false hope that we will be better than them, and everything they do, every hug and blow, only makes certain that we never will be.”

The fictional world is not the only one that’s fallen apart. “Nobody among the liberal-progressive establishment talks about religion in the same way they used to back in the early-20th century and certainly in the mid-19th century,” he says. He points to abolitionists and civil-rights activists and how they interacted with religion. “There’s no similar source of vigor these days for people who identify with liberals and progressives and want to make the world decidedly better in some way.”

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