After the Flood
Recently, I came across a 2010 New Yorker interview with the novelist Chris Adrian. At the time of the interview, Adrian had been named one of the magazine’s top 20 writers under the age of 40. (Though this honor is only one item on an already impressive C. V.— Adrian has also been a fellow of pediatric haemotology-oncology at the University of California, San Francisco and a student at both the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the Harvard Divinity School). When asked to name some of his favorite writers over 40, Adrian listed Ursula Le Guin, Marilynne Robinson, John Crowley, and Padgett Powell.
I had already heard good things about Adrian, but this list really got me excited. Ursula Le Guin is a personal favorite—I’ve taught The Dispossessed before, and her 2008 Lavinia, a re-imagining of the Aeneid from the perspective of Aeneas’ wife, is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in awhile. I’ve written elsewhere about Robinson and Crowley (here and here), and suffice it to say that I think they are two of the best writers alive today. I hadn’t read anything by Powell, but three out of four ain’t bad, so I decided to give Adrian’s second novel, The Children’s Hospital (2006), a shot.
The Children’s Hospital is notable, first, for its wonderfully strange premise: God reneges on his promise to Noah and again covers the Earth with water. Miraculously, a children’s hospital is kept afloat, along with the doctors, patients, workers, and visitors who happened to be in the building when the rains came. (The characters refer to the destruction of the world as “the Thing.”) Much as in a fairy tale, the characters in The Children’s Hospital initially panic, but quickly accept their extraordinary situation as the new normal: the hospital’s slogan becomes, “Just do the work.” The staff reconfigures itself, divvying up medical responsibilities and electing a governmental body. There are petty squabbles and infighting. One early chapter begins, “A committee formed,” as if it sprung up spontaneously from the flooded planet. Despite the Apocalypse, bureaucracy lives on.
But the real heart of the novel is a third-year medical student named Jemma Claflin. Over the course of her life, Jemma has become accustomed to loss (if not loss on the global scale): her father suffered a brutal death as a result of lung cancer; both her mother and brother committed suicide in particularly horrifying fashion; and her first love, driving home drunk from a New Year’s party, crashed into a tree and died. As the novel opens, Jemma has cordoned herself off from any emotional investment—by her logic, “everyone she had loved was dead, and everyone she loved would die.” The novel traces Jemma’s emergence into a more open relationship to the rest of the world. About midway through the novel, there is another divine intervention. Jemma, three months pregnant with the child of a resident at the hospital, discovers that she has miraculous healing powers: in a single night, she heals all 700 of the hospital’s seriously ill children, and the story is on its way to its dramatic conclusion (and the world, it seems, is on its way to a dramatic rebirth).
And if that wasn’t fantastical enough for you, then there’s also this: the novel’s action is foreseen, narrated, and perhaps determined, by a host of angels. As Adrian writes, “It takes four angels to oversee an apocalypse: a recorder to make the book that would be scripture in the new world; a preserver to comfort and save those selected to be the first generation; an accuser to remind them why they suffer; and a destroyer to revoke the promise of survival and redemption, and to teach them the awful truth about furious sheltering grace.” The recording angel serves as narrator, and the novel alternates between four stories: the Book of Calvin, the Acts of Jemma, the Book of the King’s Daughter, and another, unnamed section. Together, these will serve as a new holy book, though the recording angel admits that “in the new world no will read scripture, and they will not labor under the sort of covenant that can be written down in words.”
If this all sounds incredibly complex, that’s because it is. Yet Adrian is able to pull it off, both through his compelling portrait of Jemma and through the obvious delight with which he tells each of these four stories. The Book of Calvin takes its name from Jemma’s dead brother, who speaks in the compressed, prophetic, God-haunted tones of a Flannery O’Connor character. Sometimes he can be witty: the devil is “the author, leader, and contriver of all malice and wickedness. But that’s me. I couldn’t write a better personal ad myself—depraved, malicious, and malignant seeks same for mysterious purpose.” (Calvin’s name is no accident: he constantly harps on mankind’s total depravity.) At other times, Calvin’s words are harrowing, evoking sympathy for a young man for whom belief means endless torture: “[God] is watching me. He has always been watching me, and every time I fail at going, or lose more understanding of my problem and the world’s problem, then the pressure only gets heavier, and some days I can barely get out of bed for the weight of it, and I have lain underneath a night sky awake all night, open to His awful gaze all night, asking all night, What am I, that you should always look at me? I think the great weight of it should drive me grave-deep into the ground.”
In the end, what is perhaps most striking about The Children’s Hospital is not the fantastical conceit that gives the novel its title, nor its angelic chorus, but Adrian’s linguistic inventiveness. Fitting for someone with training in literature, medicine, and theology, Adrian regularly shifts linguistic registers, delighting in the tension produced by writing in such completely different styles. He is above all else a versatile writer, giving in one scene a convincing (and disturbing) technical account of a premature birth, then offering a scene of straight fantasy, and then having his characters engage in a serious conversation about theodicy. (Adrian wears his theological learning proudly—we encounter characters named Martin Marty, Calvin, and Dickie and Ronnie Niebuhr.)
The book is not without its flaws. Its incredible ambition can be overwhelming, and some of the characters are less well drawn than others. (Rob, the father of Jemma’s child, is a bit flat, and most of the hospital’s doctors are eccentric rather than interesting.) Still, this fantasical-theological-medical beast of a novel is a powerful and challenging work. You emerge from The Children’s Hospital admiring the fertility of Adrian’s imagination and the fertility of the English language.