“The Children’s Hospital” by Chris Adrian. (McSweeney’s)
By Adrienne LaFrance
Chris Adrian looks familiar because he looks ordinary. Dressed simply in khakis and a wrinkled, white Oxford shirt, he speaks just loudly enough to be heard and smiles only with his mouth closed. His calm restraint– like that of a monk or a surgeon– naturally reflects the seriousness of his work as a master’s divinity student at Harvard and a full-time pediatrician in a Boston emergency room. Impressive as it is, such accomplishment is common in Cambridge, Mass., where he lives. Adrian deliberately blends in, but don’t let him fool you. He is exceptional because his writing is extraordinary.
But the 35-year-old would tell you otherwise. He insists he is unremarkable, even lazy. He chides himself for not keeping up with the latest medical research. His friends and editors repeatedly reprimand him for deleting mass amounts of work he deems junk without first getting a second opinion. He admits that he daydreams in class.
Adrian’s thoughts, like his writing, tend to drift toward his obsession; death.
Death is ubiquitous in Adrian’s work. He has covered topics in his fiction including suicide, war, a number of diseases, the death of a conjoined twin, the attempted murder of Santa Claus (twice), a child who gruesomely slays animals and, most recently, the end of the world.
Adrian’s second novel, “The Children’s Hospital,” is a hefty 600-plus pages that braids science fiction, philosophy, and religion. The novel details an apocalyptic event in which the Earth is drowned by seven miles of water, and only a hospital and those inside are preserved, somehow floating on the ocean’s surface.
“My editor had to pry the manuscript from my fingers, pretty much, and threaten to hurt me before I would finally give it to him,” Adrian said. “I was making pretty drastic changes to it up to the very last moment, and had plans to screw it up even further before I gave it in.”
But “The Children’s Hospital,” which Adrian insisted was “silly and dull” when his classmates at Harvard recently asked him about it, has been celebrated by critics as “genius,” “brilliant,” and “startlingly beautiful.”
This particular class was the first meeting of a Harvard seminar called–what else? –“Death and Dying in Literature,” led by Professor Dorothy Austin, a middle-aged minister with chic bobbed hair, a vivid green jacket, and a magnetic, feisty spirit. Adrian arrived two minutes late. Being followed to class by a journalist quickly blew his any-guy cover. He barely had time to sit down before his professor was parading around the room, beaming, and holding up a copy of his latest book.
“Were you just going to slink around under the radar?” she demanded with a smile, eliciting laughter from the class.
Adrian, far cozier in anonymity, was good-spirited about all the attention. He shyly agreed to let his professor read an excerpt from the book, but cautioned her to “be careful of the naughty parts,” so quietly that he had to repeat the warning. The rapt class soaked in the first two pages of “The Children’s Hospital” as it was read aloud. Adrian blushed furiously, but managed to joke, “I actually hired her to do this” when Austin suggested “The Children’s Hospital” for her the required reading list.
The novel, which took nearly a decade for Adrian to complete, would be right at home with other works on the class reading list like Ira Byock’s “Dying Well,” Helen Fitzgerald’s “The Mourning Handbook,” and “The Grim Reader,” by Maura Spiegel and Richard Tristman; Not exactly light material.
“I don’t know what compels me to write about (death),” Adrian said. “I guess all the dead people. But the ones in my family, mostly. It wasn’t until my brother died that I became obsessive.”
Adrian’s older brother was killed in a car accident in 1993, and characters in Adrian’s books and short stories have repeatedly dealt with losing loved ones, specifically brothers, ever since.
“He was the son who was good at sports and the good-looking one” said Adrian, the youngest of four, with a twinkly-eyed smile. “My sisters and I always say that he would have been the normal one out of all of us siblings if he had lived.”
Many years ago, Ashley Kneidel and Adrian became friends at Trinity Preparatory High School, a private school in Winter Park, Florida.
“It just changed everything,” said Kneidel, now a middle school Spanish teacher in Connecticut, of the elder Adrian’s death. “It was just so out-of-the-blue, just not expected at all. I knew his brother, but not well. Most of the time that Chris and I spent together was at my house, because there was more turmoil in his house and my house was the escape for him.”
Kneidel and Adrian’s friendship during high school mostly concerned escapism by finding the simplest joys in life.
“We just did very childish things together,” Kneidel remembered. “We like to swing and just play like kids. He has a real innocence to him. He hasn’t changed a whole lot over time.”
But time has brought its share of hardships for Adrian, including the death of his father last February. Adrian fondly recalls flying with his dad, who worked as a commercial airline pilot, when he was a child. His parents met because Adrian’s mother was a flight attendant, and they raised their two boys and two girls in an upper-class community called Sherwood Forest near Annapolis, Md., before moving to Florida (where Adrian’s mother still lives).
Adrian points to his father for instilling a strong work ethic in him, but he maintains that he’s a long way off from being as hard a worker as the man who raised him. Although Adrian always knew he wanted to be a doctor (“part of it was because my mother was putting toy stethoscopes under my pillow,” he said), he majored in English at the University of Florida and didn’t take academics seriously until medical school. But before heading to Eastern Virginia Medical School, Adrian was admitted to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa.
“I spent all my time as an undergrad writing goofy stories, staying up all night, then sleeping all day,” Adrian said. “The only classes I went to regularly were my writing classes and I had pretty mediocre science grades.”
One of Adrian’s college professor’s, Padgett Powell, is a renowned writer himself and someone Adrian cites as an inspiration.
“I recall most that he was unusefully quiet in the classroom, which is not unusual with the gifted,” Powell wrote in an e-mail. “They have the sense to keep their mouths shut. The phrase pulling hens teeth was made for them. Adrian was writing difficult-of-access stuff that depended on the reader’s familiarity with other literature; I was not sure myself what some of the allusions were to.”
Kneidel also sets the record straight about her friend’s claims of academic mediocrity.
“I always knew Chris was extremely intelligent but it’s so effortless with him,” Kneidel said. “He never studied for any test ever, never studied. All through graduate school, all through medical school, he always acted like he was failing everything and they were going to kick him out at any given moment. He never studied and then all of the sudden it was, ‘Oh wow, look, I got in,’ or ‘Oh wow, look, they’re publishing a book of mine,’ or ‘Oh wow, look, I’m accepted at Harvard.’ He always just acts like it’s a big surprise, like, ‘Aren’t these kind people?'”
Remembering the first novel he ever wrote, one he describes as “execrable,” Adrian shudders.
“I found the last copy of that horrible book and took it immediately to the dump,” Adrian said. This could bring up another point of contention for his old friend.
“He wrote such amazing things in high school,” Kneidel gushed. “He once wrote this piece that was published in our high school newsletter and went home to all of the parents that he wrote in the voice of a nun. The school took it as the real writing of a nun and published it as such. Boy did he laugh. And when he laughs, he doesn’t emit any sound, you just hear air coming out of nostrils and he just kind of shakes up and down, like he’s trying not to laugh even when he’s laughing really hard.”
Adrian has retained the boyishness his friend described. When asked about pet peeves, he genuinely can’t think of any. Forget typical adult grievances like traffic or unruly adolescents. Adrian explains that he has more phobias than annoyances, and lists clowns and portable toilets as the main offenders. Adrian is tormented, too, by his varied passions. His self-deprecation sharply contrasts the kind of compassion he has for the human experience, as evidenced in his writing and medical work.
“I feel like I’m terribly lazy and don’t do half the things I should, and do a bad job at the things that I do,” Adrian said. “If I were reading more about the latest way we’re supposed to be treating, or not treating, an ear infection, I’d be a better doctor. And then, if I actually had time to write and read more, I’d be a better writer. It seems that by doing both, I’m doomed to do a bad job at both of them.”
Back at Harvard, Professor Austin asked her students if anyone had ever been present when someone died. She volunteered Adrian, a class celebrity of sorts, to offer an example. He told first of being there with his patients, then of staying by his ill father’s side last February.
“The hospice people were wonderful,” Adrian said softly. “Hospice work changes people who are already wonderful for the better. My sister and I were there. It was strange to say the least. There was a weird tension in that… I was caring for someone in a way I’ve never done before as a physician.”
But Adrian’s driving medical interest is pediatric oncology, which requires him to confront death as well, and is part of what brought Adrian to divinity school.
“It seemed like doing this program would make it easier to deal with all that stuff,” he said. “You can also learn a lot of counseling kind of stuff in (graduate divinity) programs, the idea being that they’re trying to make you into a reasonably compassionate and effective pastoral councilor… Writing is supposed to make me feel better about stuff and it generally doesn’t. But I think I would be crazier if I didn’t write. I think it allows you to process stuff in a way that makes you not want to jump off a bridge so much.”
Despite his preoccupation with death and a preference for reading work by “dead white guys” like Herman Melville, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and George Eliot (who is actually a dead white girl), Adrian is surprisingly lighthearted when it comes to his taste for entertainment.
“I go to goofy teenybopper movies,” he said. “It’s kind of a guilty pleasure. I never remember the titles. But, oh, um, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. I liked that one a lot, which is sort of embarrassing… When I was in grad school, I used to read lots of X-Men. I would get in trouble because I was extremely poor like everybody else in the program, so I would go to the comic book store in Iowa City and read, like seven comic books, and then buy one because I felt bad. Eventually I got thrown out of every comic book store in Iowa City.”
But Adrian, who doesn’t own a television, rarely devotes the little free time he has to anything but writing projects. He likes to frequent an Italian restaurant near his Cambridge home, but mostly because he keeps nothing in his fridge but a bottle of Coca-Cola and some yogurt.
“I can’t cook to save my life,” Adrian said. “I make myself sick when I try.”
Of course, he has plenty of other responsibilities to keep him busy. Like homework, which he says he dislikes, (except for his “sometimes fun” Greek homework). One of the assignments in “Death and Dying in Literature” is for students to write their own eulogy.
“I could think of all the sort of horrible things to say about myself,” Adrian said. “But that’s probably not the point of the assignment.”
Meantime, he has some personal writing projects up his sleeve. Adrian is putting together a collection of short stories, in addition to writing new material. One project involves a modern-day take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while another sounds less airy.
“I’m working on a goofy kids’ book about a little girl who has this adventure in an alternate America trying to save this little boy from killing himself.”
Adrian speculates that if he didn’t have professional and academic affiliations with medicine, writing and divinity, he wouldn’t have anything at all.
“I imagine myself as a homeless person a lot. I think I’d probably go back to San Francisco. It seems like people might be nicer to you there if you were homeless. And the weather’s pretty nice too.”
For now, Cambridge will have to do. Despite what he says, Adrian is steady on-track as a physician, scholar and writer. His old professor best captures the force and importance of Adrian’s capability.
“What makes (a great writer), I don’t know, but he has to, or she, say something new, say it with power, have the balls to say it, and have it be fun to hear,” Powell wrote. “Adrian is doing this. There’s been some tragedy in his life but that doesn’t account for it alone.”