I ask where it went, this source of religious sustenance, how and why it disappeared. “My sort of dunderheaded understanding of what happened is that the bright-eyed bushy-tailed people who wanted to make a perfect world in the 20th century got their hopes irretrievably dashed by the First and Second World Wars and everything horrible that followed.” Grand-scale disillusionment resulted “and the people who started to get sustained by religion were looking back instead of forward, to before things went wrong. A more atavistic perspective started to seem like progress,” he says.
It’s not a stretch to see Adrian’s floating infirmary as an allegory of the United States. We are living in a period of aftermath. We’ve floated on a sea of power, righteous with a sense of manifest destiny, but September 11 taught that we can sink, too. In The Children’s Hospital, Adrian asks: “What if we were terribly sure we were among the elect, except actually we weren’t?”
Adrian’s first novel, Gob’s Grief - a Civil War–era story about a man who attempts to build a machine that’ll bring the dead back to life after his brother’s killed in the war - was more personal: Adrian’s older brother was killed in a car accident in 1993.
Dead brothers abound in The Children’s Hospital too. “Every wrong thing arises from the death of brothers,” says Pickie Beecher, a character who shows up in both novels. And the most chilling scenes in Hospital are not the ones of people banging their heads against glass windows over an ever-expanding sea, or the exacting, gruesome descriptions of diseased children, like Ella Thims, who “had one of those terribly exclusive diseases, a syndrome of caudal regression that had left her incomplete in her bowels, and blank between her legs.” Instead, the most searing scenes are from Jemma’s childhood, especially those with her brother Calvin, who is treacherous, charismatic, and seductive in a way only older brothers can be.
Death looms in both books, and Adrian wishes we would acknowledge it more openly. “It sure would make conversations in the hospital a lot easier.” If people accepted the fact of death, “that it was somehow less of a terribly big deal, I think the pressure would be off in some way.”
But isn’t it the biggest deal? “It is,” he says. “The hugeness of the deal is part of what drove me to write in the first place.” But if it all weren’t so secret and unspoken, Adrian says, all the energy people use not thinking about it could be channeled elsewhere, in healthier directions. He details three possible responses: for some, they’d just figure it’s no big deal - I’m dead, so what? For others, they’d believe there’d be “something left after the biological impulses stop getting transmitted.” And for still others, it might be that it’s really horrible, and “they can’t get over the horror of it, but they’re going to make something happen, make some sort of impudent gesture in the face of the dreadful horror.” All are better, Adrian argues, than “being all sad about your own mortality without ever speaking about it to yourself.”
As for where Adrian himself falls on the fear-of-death spectrum, “I go between being dreadfully afraid and then being miserably depressed, thinking ‘oh, it wouldn’t be so bad to be dead.’ ”