I am pleased to herein offer my firm anti-recommendation for Chris Adrian's ambitious novel, The Children's Hospital. I am backed up by the members of my intelligent, insightful, and currently enraged book club. I'd love to write a detailed and balanced review that explained the flaws of the book, but a) they are too many and too thorough to describe, and b) I didn't actually finish the book because it was so painful and so very, very long.
Almost none of us finished it. Those who did had no extra insight to offer the rest of us. In fact, they may have been even more confused than the rest of us. The first act of the book, after all, was a poorly-imagined apocalypse story told through the plodding guise of an overly-detailed hospital procedural.
Now, I've read about the end of the world plenty of times--YA, adults, kids, natural disaster, war, zombies--and I have never read a more passionless, meaningless, emotionally vacant version of the end. People in this book cry sometimes because their loved ones are dead, but they're doctors, so they soldier on. Really, they take a minute to cry in the bathroom between rounds. Our main character, who has lost many loved ones before the disaster, doesn't even respond that strongly. No one finds themselves stripped of their entire understanding of reality, throwing off everything they thought, believed, and were, living--I don't know--naked in the hallway, or ranting about the end times on the roof. No one goes wild, or shuts down. People occasionally contemplate it as though it were a really upsetting political situation on the other side of the world. None of them really even stop doctoring.
The world ended in an apocalyptic flood; the hospital was preserved through the divine intervention of angels, one of whom now occupies the hospital and answers requests and speaks words of saccharine support from the walls. Angels and a flood, magical changes to the building, magical production of food and things you want. The end of the world. Is there any explanation or consideration or questions for the angels or speculation about the nature of God? Is there any concept that if there are angels (and they're narrating the book, mind you--the whole thing is technically from their point of view) there must be a god? Heaven is mentioned, as is being sent. But who did the sending, his/her/its intent, purpose, aims are not only not revealed to us, they are barely speculated about. One character has a running list of reasons the world had to end--things like irritating commercials and silly products. Not even she thinks about who might have been making this judgement.
And that's the problem with the whole thing: lots of angels but no God. Lots of doctors but no healing (or dying, either. Why is everyone panicking when nobody seems to die?) It's like the author thought that putting all these things into a book was the same as having something to say about them. Having an end of the world flood with angels is the same as wrestling with the notion of God. Watching doctors do their rounds is the same as saying something about the medical profession. But it's not.
I haven't even gotten into the parts of the book I didn't get to; I read just over 1/3 of it. For the record, here are some spoilers of the parts I didn't read but was told about: the main character gets healing powers, someone discovers the journal of a promiscuous little kid, adults die and children take over the world. Apparently none of them make any more sense than the parts I read, or seem to have any more meaning, or are any more intellectually stimulating or emotionally pleasing. It's just a bunch of random stuff stuck together that's supposed to mean something, like an electronic poetry generator. It's not abstract--abstract is a hard, complex, subtle, emotional way to create art. This is like a parody of abstract.
I could go on forever, but maybe I'll write another post someday about the thoughts and conversations I've had about literary fiction versus "upscale popular fiction" from reading this book, or about Girlfriend in a Coma, which this reminded me of and I also really hated. This is enough for now.
And if anyone's read the book and can tell my why so many reviewers really loved it (Maya Goldberg even spoke of how he resisted turning characters into symbols, which is EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of how I would describe the book I read) , I'd really appreciate if you could explain it to me. There were plenty of great books that I didn't enjoy or didn't get; I don't think this was one of them. I think, as Sarah said, this was a case of "the emperor has no clothes."
(PS. Also the names: Dr. Tiller, the calm one. Dr. Sashay, the crazy one, Dr. Sasscock, the sexy one. And on and on and ON AND ON. Also, it was published by McSweeney's. Of course. I feel this way about a lot of McSweeney's stuff.)