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The Children's Hospital

The New World Beckons

I'm not really sure why, but since finishing Chris Adrian's sparkling new novel The Children's Hospital, I keep thinking of a couplet from deep within Yeats's poem “Easter, 1916.” “And what if excess of love/Bewildered them till they died?” “Them” is transformed here, however, from Yeats' 16 executed Irishmen to everyone -- to me and you and all of our distant relatives who populate this Earth.

For Adrian's novel concerns the end of the world, a second Biblical flood that covers the earth with seven miles of water. The protagonist is Jemma Claflin, a mediocre third-year medical student who is to become or create the transition between the end of this world and that to come. Like many things in the novel, which of the two -- being or creating -- depends on how you read the text.

It's all terribly fantastic and yet convincing, from the preserving angel to Jemma's miraculous powers to the blotch. The novel is 615 pages, which is, frankly, enormous, and there's just no way to summarize it fully in an equal number of words. What follows, then, is my best attempt at managing it.

For the first 200 pages or so, the children at the hospital are still dying, literally, even as the odd new ark bobs and drifts along the vast, endless ocean, and so life remains somewhat normal. The survivors set up rudimentary government structures, argue about how to proceed next, and generally change their deeds in small ways. They fail, however, to change their ethos or approach to each other.

And who can blame them for this last part? They are the survivors after all, and not a homogeneous group: religiously Muslim, Unitarian, Jain, Jewish, and the gamut of Christian sects, devout and undevout, as well as atheists and agnostics not religious at all. A variety of races; a variety of world views. The only thing they seem to have in common is the hospital, so that is what they continue. The recording angel, who literally lives in the basement of the hospital, provides whatever they need or can think of via a series of “replicators” that will synthesize almost anything, from medicine to food to pornography.

A man appears out of the water: another survivor, they think, though he has no memory of anything at all. Then Jemma discovers she's pregnant and, in the middle of the novel, that she has a mysterious power to heal and hurt and alter chemical structures, and she heals all the children in the hospital in one tear. There's a wedding, a return of fish and animal life, and, it seems, some measure of hospitality and security.

But the last third is simply a chronicle of the doom coming to the parents, the last survivors of our generation of human beings, soon to be literally antediluvian. This is the botch, which infects and destroys and turns bodies to ash and dust.

This all comes in four interwoven parts -- new Gospels, really -- each subtly marked: The Book of the King's Daughter, The Acts of Jemma, the Book of Calvin, and the unnamed lamentations of the recording angel whose job it is to write everything down.

So that happy middle is bookended by sadness of a sort, first for the things lost, and then for things to come. And Jemma, for all her attributes as a chosen vessel for the grace of God, is not saintly, not above or removed from the tribulations and tristesse of surviving the apocalypse. The best passage in the novel reflects this, where “her heart had ached in sophomore history at the deep faces of the Civil War dead, but that didn't really relate, or make her a better person, because what she felt had been more a sort of crush on those handsome dead boys, rather than real grief, and anyway that was before her own family had run off, practically hand in hand, into the kingdom of the dead.” It's a wonderfully human passage, moving from “right” thinking to the profane and back again, to thoughts of her own doomed family.

So back to Yeats. One of the many wonderful things about Adrian's novel is the reflectiveness it puts upon you -- or rather, me. This is its own sort of unusual genius, to make us take away something more than what the novel, or any novel, can possibly give.

Yeats meant that “bewildered” as a play on words, meaning both confused and made wild. And I, and perhaps I alone, here stretch that “love” past eros; past philia and agape as well; and instead encompass all of those with the types of love we normally secret when friends come over: our loves of things, of attention, of quiet self-indulgence. These are the things that bewilder us, that bewilder me, and the things that make me crazy. And, I submit, they are what bind me to Adrian's floating, drifting hospital.

The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian
McSweeney's Books
October 1, 2006
Hardback, $24
ISBN 1-932416-60-9
615 pages