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Imagining a Place Where People Become Better
Most good novelists, regardless of their spiritual bearings, sooner or later have a go at resurrection. As creators of characters, places, and events, however, they tend to focus less on the death-to-life transformation that is beyond human agency and more broadly on liberation from the very notion of mortality, with the result being anything the mind can imagine.
Resurrection even comes as a premium to their books, for the moment we have read the last word we are free to return to the first—though with no guarantee of the same results.
Chris Adrian’s highly acclaimed novels, Gob’s Grief (2000) and The Children’s Hospital (just released), are driven by an imagination completely free from the conventions of linearity and any staid notions of how the fantastical ought to be applied to either literary or historical fiction.
Beginning in the wake of great tragedy and devastation, both narratives can’t avoid suffering and death, but the promise of resurrection is the elasticity that allows these marvelous stories to evolve as they do—one a literal attempt at regeneration by a grieving brother, the other a collaborative attempt (angels are involved) by a small colony of survivors to redo humankind in a way that actually might work.
The bold interplay of biblical-mythical stagecraft, comic-book brio, and gritty medical realism often seems to be coming at you from all sides in Adrian’s books, yet the time-immortal desires of the human heart never cower in the mix: “Never mind the sins and pleasures and miseries of the old world,” a narrating angel declares in The Children’s Hospital, “never mind the unknowable, indescribable satisfactions of the world to come, let me just watch them there, and let them just stay there, and let all of us finally be happy.”
A pediatrician in the emergency room at Boston’s Children’s Hospital and a second-year MDiv student at HDS, Adrian comes pretty close to substantiating the notion that you are your best work. If anyone were to tackle a story about the occupants of a children’s hospital that is now afloat because a second great flood has killed off the rest of the earth’s inhabitants, he’s your guy.
“In The Children’s Hospital,” Adrian explained in a recent interview, “the medical student protagonist gets magical powers that let her go around healing all the sick kids and basically eradicating disease in the hospital—at least temporarily. I think a lot of what gets done in that book is a wish fulfillment that’s probably pretty common among people who in their medical training just want to make everybody better, especially when you see the same kids coming in again and again with chronic illnesses and see how their illnesses shape their lives and their families’ lives. Everybody wants to do something more for them, so it’s kind of gratifying to imagine a place where people actually become all better.”
For someone who writes about the machinations of angels, Adrian is surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly) down-to-earth.
He has the modesty and manners of a bygone era, though his conversational pepperings with words like “neat,” “fun,” and “stuff” betray a history of getting children to tell him where it hurts.
Readers of his novels may find this image hard to square with the authorial voice that gets so much accomplished even with the gratuity of 600 pages—a tale-telling impresario on the order of the great and powerful Oz. Adrian, however, would be the first to (graciously) point out the man behind the curtain:
“Sometimes I definitely feel like the story is getting away with itself or running away from me and I’m not up to the job of keeping up. I feel that half the time I can name five or six people who could write the same book and do a much better job than I’m doing with it. One of the pieces of writing advice that has stuck with me—a paraphrase of Hemingway I think—is that you’re doing a decent job of writing when what happens next is what has to happen next.”
Adrian gives the impression that his life course, too, has adhered to this same what-has-to-happen-next philosophy—the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Eastern Virginia Medical School, pediatric residency at Cal-San Francisco, and now Harvard Divinity School.
“I guess I think of [being a doctor, a writer, and now an MDiv student] as trying to get all the tools I need to do a certain kind of work,” he observed, “and have my different obsessions and interests all come together in a way that allows me to do one job to get to where I want to be.”
He continued: “In my writing I was thinking about the same sort of stuff people think about in divinity school, and part of the reason I wanted to come here was that I thought it would make me a more mature writer. I thought it would be good if I studied in a more systematic way and had a better (to borrow a term from medical training) fund of knowledge about Western philosophy and the sorts of things that the people whom I had admired as writers knew and had under their belt.”
“There are definitely things I hope to bring back to medicine after having been through the MDiv program,” he said.
“Like how to talk to a teenager who has a cancer that’s not curable and knows he or she is going to die. If I’ve done, say, a chaplaincy internship, I’d be able to talk to them in a different way than I would have with regular old medical training. I have to say that you don’t learn how to talk to patients in that way just doing the fellowship pathway; people get good at that sort of thing partly because they have to and partly because of the kind of person they are, being drawn to that kind of work.”