Sorrow floats

Chris Adrian reckons with human suffering in his new book The Children’s Hospital
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  March 2, 2007

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MAKING SENSE OF THE IMPOSSIBLE: Religion, suffering, life: Chris Adrian’s trying to figure it out.

Chris Adrian is trying to figure out how to bring people back to life. He’s a pediatrician in the emergency room of Children’s Hospital in Boston. He’s pursuing a master’s of divinity at Harvard Divinity School. And in The Children’s Hospital, his grand and ominous second novel, lives are saved in two ways: through medicine and miracles. But it is grief - and a pervasive sense of doom - that drives this end-of-times novel, and seems to compel Adrian himself.

We meet on a Friday afternoon in Harvard Square. Tall and lean, Adrian speaks softly. If you heard his voice - low, slow, with softened syllables that hint at the South (he grew up in Maryland and Florida) - you’d picture someone older, heavier, maybe bearded. But Adrian looks a little younger than his 36 years; he has neat hair and is clean shaven. Immediately striking is the sense of quiet about him - not only in the volume of his voice, but in the way he carries himself, without arrogance or writerly swagger. You want to lean in when he talks, to catch the words, yes, but also because something might be revealed to you. Something big. Maybe something scary.

In The Children’s Hospital, a great rain falls and drowns the earth in water seven miles deep. All that’s left is a floating children’s hospital and its inhabitants - doctors, interns, a few staff and parents, and hundreds of sick, sick kids. The story focuses on Jemma Claflin, a third-year med student, who, with the rest of the survivors (many with names that could’ve been cooked up by Roald Dahl: Drs. Walnut, Sundae, and Snood; Cindy Flemm; Ella Thims; Pickie Beecher) must figure out how to proceed post apocalypse. A quartet of angels who take turns with narration are the only ones who know what’s to come.

Readers find themselves quickly immersed: we buy it when the world is entirely flooded; we buy it when Jemma discovers she’s possessed of the power to heal and save with magic green fire; we buy it when an angel produces any flavor of ice cream the inhabitants request. We suspend our disbelief because Adrian’s portrait of grief is so astute. He presents both big-time, end-of-world grief and personal, quotidian grief - the boredom and frustration, the meaningless routine and daily losses - in stark relief. Because the day-to-day sadness feels so real, we’re able also to experience the more unimaginable emotions and scenarios.

Adrian finished the book during his residency in San Francisco. He’d shopped it around to 15 different publishers; every one rejected it. “It was a dreary time,” Adrian says, and you can tell it’s an understatement. A pal of his from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop mentioned Adrian’s book to author and McSweeney’s kingpin Dave Eggers. “He thought it sounded neat,” Adrian says, “so he asked to see it. And when he and Eli [Horowitz] read it, they said ‘yes’ right away.”

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