My last post talked about a few of my favorite things, things meaning books that stand out to me today, or in my not-too-distant past, as being some kind of revelatory. It’s hard to talk of any sort of favorites in our world without remembering the heavy hitters of Greek or Roman myth, and other classics, that timelessly walk along with us as we create new stories. I see a bit of Ulysses in every hero with too much bluster and bravado, and a bit of Oedipus in every fated family tale.
I recently read Faust, and the power lying in that tragedy totally rocked me to my core. Goethe uses such simple, short and plain exclamations of sadness which sum up incomprehensible destruction of each aspect of a person’s life, reminding me that sometimes less is more when it comes to the most poignant part of the drama. I’m a sucker for big tragedy–the downers of life thoroughly explored and encapsulated for all of us to visit again and again. I see these older stories in every new thing I read. Every news story and courtroom spectacle seems predicted by people who lived so long ago but understood so much about the deepest parts of existence, like we’re all still the pawns of vicious gods seeking to entertain themselves with our 24 hour news cycles.
One of the oldest stories is that of a flood. I’ve always been captivated with the flood myth’s timelessness, its ability to flow like water from one culture to another, from some of the first written books to all important religious texts to fiction today. This myth alone deserves its own post, as a ton of amazing literature surrounds it, but I want to talk about my absolute favorite book, which happens to be a modern take on the flood myth: The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian.
This one book stands for me above all the rest. This is what I talk about when people ask about my favorite book, but I haven’t come across a person yet who recognizes his name or the title. He’s a well kept secret.
The New York Times review of The Children’s Hospital talks of Adrian’s following the formula of writing what one knows, which seems unusual in this case, as the novel is about a world-ending flood, in which a children’s hospital rises above the deluge, its patients and staff seemingly the only chosen ones left to survive. And yet, Adrian is a graduate from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a former student of Harvard Divinity School, and an M.D. He is currently (the internet tells me) in the pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship at UCSF. Fitting, then, that his masterpiece involves the world’s end, flooding of biblical proportion, angels, and a children’s hospital rising above the destruction. This stuff is on his mind, this stuff of life and death and the meaning of it all.
This is not a short book, nor a light-hearted one. I read it after its release in 2006, while unfortunately trying to date someone. His questions of “What do you want to do?” would always be answered by my “I just want to read this book.” I would lie sideways with my head hanging off my bed, arms dangling and heavy hardback copy of The Children’s Hospital laying on the floor. Eventually, the guy left, and I kept reading. This book is everything good about reading–an almost randomly imaginative concept combined with crisp exactitude in expressing the human experience. In Adrian’s writing, anarchy meets accuracy, in all the best ways possible: anorexics on the eating disorder wing vomit the food given to them by angels, a 15-year-old cancer patient paints her room and her body black after she sees the floodwaters out her window, a little boy may be mentally ill or may be something much, much darker… Here’s an excerpt:
Here and there, in blocks of two or three hours, she and Rob would sleep. He’d finish crying, his sobs quieting to little hiccups, and then he was snoring and already starting to drool. Jemma always fell asleep soon after him, but woke within an hour or two. She might watch him for a little while, note his eyes moving under his lids and wonder if he was dreaming of his mother and his sisters, but then she would rise and wander. Every night, passing by the patient rooms, she’d see nurses or parents or bleary-eyed residents, standing beneath the televisions and looking uselessly from channel to channel. She would have avoided the television in any disaster, anyhow. All the late junior disasters had made her stomach hurt to consider, and she’d actively run away from the screens everywhere that played them over and over again. She stopped once beside a nurse she didn’t know and looked up at the screen, imagining in the static an endless repetition of flood, a supremely high and distant vantage that showed the earth in space turning a deeper and deeper blue. If you flipped for long enough the angel-lady would offer you a cheery movie, whether you wanted one or not.
They wanted a voice and an image, she supposed. Someone to tell them what was happening, even after the windows cleared and it become so obvious what had happened. Never mind that the angel broadcast blessings in her buzzing, broken mechanical nose voice. They were as repetitious and horrible, in their way, as a television scene would have been. ‘Creatures,’ she’d call out. ‘I will preserve you.’ It sounded less comforting every time she said it.
Gob’s Grief is Adrian’s first book, and it is slightly related to The Children’s Hospital. By no means a direct prequel, it is also haunting in its portrayal of human pain and impossible not to mention. Exploring the Civil War and its tragedies with Adrian’s signature dark, eloquent magical realism, we meet Walt Whitman as he tends to the dying off the battlefield, and a doctor named Gob as he bathes unbearably in grief, spending his life building a machine to bring back his twin brother, who ran away to join the Union Army at age eleven and died in his first battle.
Adrian’s most recent release, The Great Night, published in 2011, is a dazzling, dizzying and bright retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which takes place in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park on New Year’s Eve, 2008. Three broken-hearted people walk into the park at the same time but from different directions (one from the Haight, one from the Sunset, and one from the Castro), and so begins a night enchanted with spoiled, cruel faeries and homeless folks intent on producing a musical.
All three of Adrian’s books are memorable, with the combination of brilliantly odd ideas meshed with stunning writing ability creating believability where other authors might fall short. Adrian asks you to explore yourself and those around you by looking at impossible situations, and it somehow works. The Children’s Hospital stands alone as (so far) Adrian’s single masterpiece–a sprawling concept with precise and staggering detail, an ugly angry triumphant story of humanity at its best and worst, an examination of why we keep going in the face of so many unanswered questions, or really why we go on at all. Don’t take on this book lightly, but I urge you, please, take it on.