I admit that I knew nothing about Chris Adrian when I picked up The Children’s Hospital. I decided to try it based entirely on the strength of the author’s association with McSweeney’s, the hyperliterate quarterly and website. In fact, McSweeney’s publishing arm put out the book (which is a foxy affair which reminds me of Ulver’s Blood Inside
The intrepid hero of Adrian’s tome is Jemma Claflin, a third year medical student whose past is littered with bodies, and who carries the incredible weight of her destroyed family with her. She is joined by her sexual partner and confidante, Rob. They all work in a brand new pediatric hospital which, on the night of the horrible storm which floods the earth, is filled with 700 children, and just over 300 parents, doctors, nurses, interns, and one Mexican lady who sells tamales. The hospital, constructed to float and then magically altered by the “preserving angel” who lives in its computer core, is set adrift for just over nine months.
The story is a mélange of biblical imagery, invoking at once the story of Noah, the wrathful destructions of the Old Testament (this round of apocalypse is overseen by four angels: a preserving, a destroyer, a recorder, and the accuser), the trials of Job—and of course one also can’t help be reminded a bit of Waterworld.
I found, though, in the end, that this elaborate biblical plot (which was itself elaborately constructed around a medical drama that will appeal to fans of shows like E.R.) was simply a roundabout way of developing the character of Jemma. The real story of the book is Jemma’s past, and bit by bit we readers are clued in to her private little horror: the rocky marriage of her parents; her brother Calvin’s gruesome suicide, which involved first cutting out his own eyes and tongue before burning himself alive; her father’s slow death from cancer; her mother’s own arson/suicide; the death of her first boyfriend in a car accident. Jemma’s growth after the flood—which at one point involves her discovering an incredible magic power—takes center stage by the end, which the strings of all the plots coming together in a knot that is both revealing and rather unsatisfying.
The mechanics of the book fail to impress, really: the children are precocious in a way that is both winsome and tiresome; the medical drama is unoriginal soon melts into the unbelievable; the biblical overtures are inconsistent (and indeed are never quite explained, probably on purpose). It wasn’t until the very end of the book, when I understood Adrian’s elaborate ruse to make us think about Jemma’s character and how her story, told in flashback, has so many parallels with the stewardship of a boatfull of sick children. And how Jemma’s ultimate realization as a sort of mother of a new world brings the idea around full circle. It really was fascinating, even if I had to slog through a hefty 615 pages (not 408, like Amazon says) of sometimes-useless narrative to get there.