Children’s Hospital, by Chris Adrian
Let me paint you a picture of my recent reading history, which will perhaps illuminate why I haven’t been up to par, Cannonball-wise. Without getting into it, the past couple of months have not been good, and I have responded to this by doing what I normally do in these situations, which is to hide in a giant pile of books until the bad stuff passes. Works wonders.
As it turns out, much like grief, there are several stages of book-hiding. First there’s denial, wherein you attempt to read the books you are already reading. I am usually reading very long, somewhat dry historical tomes when this happens. Then there are your angry books (political non-fiction), your bargaining books (FINE, I’ll read Eat, Pray, Love, but it better lift my goddamn mood), depressing-as-fuck books (we’ll get to that, but suffice it say this stage starts right after you stop reading Eat, Pray, Love and finish vomiting), and then finally, acceptance, wherein you finally get off your ass and review all of the books you’ve been hiding in. I tend to get waylaid in the depressing-as-fuck section, because I am Irish.
So. In that spirit, I bought a book I had never heard of about a month ago called The Children’s Hospital. The description seemed to suit my needs, in that it combined a depressing premise with a sense of whimsy. The premise is this: a flood covers the earth in seven miles of water, and the only surviving entity is a children’s hospital, along with the detritus of humanity that happened to be onboard the night of the flood.
Chief among the survivors is Jemma Claflin, a medical student whose past is full of such suffering that the flood and accompanying demise of humanity barely registers. The most notable of these traumas is the loss of Calvin, her frighteningly depressive sociopath of a brother, who finally fulfills his series of attempts to leap from this world to the next by committing ritualistic suicide. This is followed up in short order by her mother perishing of self-inflicted arson, her father succumbing to cancer, and her first love dying in a car crash. Eventually, Jemma comes to the somewhat logical conclusion that everyone she loves will die, and so decides not to love anyone.
Making this vow more complicated is the fact that Rob, perhaps the only truly decent and wholly likable character of the motley assortment of characters, has been steadily in love with her since they met as first year med students. The relationship between Rob and Jemma is the one constant in a book full of change that is usually for the worse. Maybe the most attractive part of it is the fact that it is so aggressively normal. It’s not Titanic. Their love is not one of survivors of a watery apocalypse. It’s your average, run-of-the-mill supportive relationship, sometimes beleaguered by neuroses or circumstance, but always managing to overcome both.
Rob and Jemma are the beating heart around which the story is centered, and man, does it ever need a center, because there’s a lot of ground to cover here. The details of how a children’s hospital came to float and their continued means of survival are covered thoroughly, which is to say nothing of the medical detail that Adrian, a former pediatric resident, goes into early and often. This same diligence is served in the painstaking detail with which he draws each and every character. Adrian sees his characters as patients, and he manages to fit the details of every single one of their charts – their flaws, their fears, their passions and abuses – into this book (which may explain how long it is).
As if that weren’t enough, there is also a fair bit of the supernatural to chew on. The book is narrated by the recording angel, one of four angels assigned to the hospital. The reason for the flood is never explained, but is nevertheless the subject of much of the narrative, and though the name of God is danced around, it is never directly interacted with (in that way, the God of this book seems to be half Old Testament bad-ass, and half Deist absentminded professor). Because of these two things, it seems obvious that the figure we’re meant to worship isn’t God, but Jemma Claflin. And indeed, throughout the book, as she cautiously accepts love and circumstance, mysteriously obtains otherwordly powers, and copes with the increasingly horrific tragedies thrown at her, all of this while wielding an astonishing amount of humanity, it is at times hard not to fall down in abject praise.
Before you get as carried away as I did by the sheer epic nature of the plot, however, let me be completely candid: much like the driving rain that preceded the flood, this book is absolutely unrelenting. 615 pages of small-type, inexorable despair, with a tantalizing hint of redemption that keeps you reading. But the thing is, the first line of the book reads as follows: “I am the recording angel, doomed to watch.” This should probably have been a hint that redemption was not coming, and even if it did, it would be so exhaustingly hard-won as to almost not seem quite worth it. I saw the end coming like a Mack truck, but like one of those damn deer, I could not get out of the way of it.
I was in rough shape before even starting this book, and it was quite a slog getting through it, so you can imagine that upon finishing it, I was immediately and entirely overcome with hopelessness and despair (the Smiths, as usual, did not help matters). I was on a bus home from New York at the time, and in despair of any other company to spread my misery to, I inspected my neighbors more closely. One of them was reading a comic book and eating Doritos, which might not sound like much to you, but the thing is, he was very dapper. Nice glasses, jeans that fit perfectly, an effortlessly casual yet stylishly expensive looking hoodie. The girl next to me was drawing a picture. I watched her for a somewhat inappropriate length of time, slowly rendering a female face in pinks and oranges, so effortlessly that it looked like her pencils were just erasing a picture that was already there, underneath all that white. She was pretty non-descript girl, dressed in the sort of clothes one wears for a Greyhound bus ride, and it took me awhile to realize that she was drawing herself. It was a portrait of how she saw herself, and it was gorgeous.
For some reason, and I couldn’t tell you why, the combination of both of these people managed to pull me out of the very dark mood I had been sinking into, a very Irish mood in which the whole world is despair and suffering and what is the point of it all. Gradually, the book started to make a subtle kind of sense to me; the reasoning behind why someone would so meticulously catalogue the lives of people, most of whom were mildly unlikable, and all of whom would eventually die. It’s pretty much the same reasoning as to why we all so meticulously catalogue and keep track of our own lives and others, despite the fact that all of us have flaws and are, at one point or another, profoundly unlikable. Despite the fact that we’re all eventually going to die, lining up for death like one big cosmic DMV. Because there’s a lot to love here. Because finite does not mean the same thing as worthless. And because humanity, with its girls who don’t realize that they are just as pretty as their pictures, and its boys who have an Esquire sense of style but the culinary and literary tastes of an eleven-year-old, deserves occasionally to be praised.