The Phoenix Network:
About | Advertise
Books  |  Comedy  |  Dance  |  Museum And Gallery  |  Theater

Sorrow floats

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

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.”

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.”

1  |  2  |   next >
  Topics: Books , Chris Adrian , Culture and Lifestyle , Religion ,  More more >
  • Share:
  • RSS feed Rss
  • Email this article to a friend Email
  • Print this article Print

Today's Event Picks
Share this entry with Delicious

 See all articles by: NINA MACLAUGHLIN

RSS Feed of for the most popular articles
 Most Viewed   Most Emailed 

Featured Articles in Museum And Gallery:
Saturday, November 22, 2008  |  Sign In  |  Register
Phoenix Media/Communications Group:
Copyright © 2008 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group