GOB'S GRIEF

FICTION BY CHRIS ADRIAN

Broadway, 2000
ISBN: 0-7679-0281-5
Fwanted to write a story where somebody gets his brother back.”
         Mr. Adrian’s grief over the loss of his own brother prompted Gob's Grief, the first published novel from the accomplished medical-student-cum-short-story-writer. Given a mission of such profound personal meaning, it’s hard not to produce a work of at least passable eloquence. But Mr. Adrian, apparently a chronic overachiever, settles more than his share of disputes on the state of literature in America. Not quite a masterpiece but far more than a reckless attempt at Cold Mountain-esque lachrymosity, Gob’s Grief is both an inviting treatise on the nature of mourning and a sweeping look a nation obsessed with loss.
        
As an introduction, let it be said that Gob’s Grief is set in the past but is not an historical novel, that its characters include Walt Whitman and Victoria Woodhull but it is not biographical fiction, that its protagonist builds a fantastic machine to bring the dead back to life but it is not a fantasy. Mr. Adrian’s vocabulary is quite competent; his toolbox well rounded. But this is not a literary novel, no, no more than Agatha Christie wrote quaint mysteries. Think of Gob’s Grief as a handbook for mourning, a door opened into a room where impossible dreams are allowed their head, and you shall begin to understand the power behind Mr. Adrian’s prose.
         Tomo and Gob are twin sons of Victoria Woodhull, the famous real-life feminist who campaigned for women’s rights long before the first Steinem-head burned a bra. Understandably, the boys’ upbringing is a muddle of Free Love and idyllic images of a caramelized afterlife called the Summerland. Theirs is a world in which the Urfeist, a horrible creature who bites off childrens’ fingers, may or may not live around the bend. But it is also a place whose reality is dire, where eleven-year-olds run off the war. Gob, scared at the prospect of his own mortality, is fortuitously injured before they make it to the train that will transport them to a Union Army camp. Tomo continues and, predictably, expires at Chickamauga.
         Mr. Adrian has crafted an immaculate glimpse of madness born from the over-indulgence of one’s passions. We are told that Gob’s missing finger is a congenital deformity but are shown a trip to the Urfeist’s lair in which Gob sacrifices his finger for the knowledge of how to bring his brother back to life.

“I want something,” said Gob. “I’ll pay for it. I want my brother back. He’s dead but I want to bring him here again, into the world. It’s got to be so he’s a living boy.” He kept babbling because the Urfeist said nothing. He only moved one long finger slowly towards Gob’s face. Gob did not try to back away, but did not think he could have, had he tried. The Urfeist put his finger gently under Gob’s lips.
         “Hush,” he said. He left his finger there for a long moment. Gob was dashed with horror, as if someone had filled a bucket with pure liquid horror and dumped it over his head.

Likewise, we are told of Gob’s love for Maci Trufant but shown a homosexual gesture toward Walt Whitman. We are told of the horror of war but shown its aftermath—the blood, the tired surgeons riddled with doubt. Mr. Adrian’s web of paradoxes is cunning. He challenges the mind saturated with belief in the concrete and socially acceptable by talking of considered reality in passing and elaborately reporting on the impossible. In the end, we are shown a mirror of ourselves, forced to question our memories and self-contrived reality.
         Though Gob is the book’s protagonist, it is Will Fie, a lesser presence but a stronger character, who is the backbone of Gob’s Grief . Another veteran of the Civil War, Fie is forced to serve as a photographer’s apprentice and thereby to witness firsthand the disgraces men serve one another. After the war, he builds a house of daguerreotypes of dead soldiers—literally, a house of glass—on the outside of which people live their lives and whose interior is thrown with the shadows of the deceased. It is a perfect representation of life as we assume it to be, and nowhere is Mr. Adrian’s skill more apparent.
         This house of the dead becomes an integral part of the adult Gob’s contraption. But the most important piece is Walt Whitman, the great “credulous man” who is somehow less than enamored of Gob’s plan. “There’s a place for you in it,” Gob tells Walt of the machine. “I need you to go in it, and then bring them back, all the six hundred thousand … All the dead of the war, all the dead of all the wars. All the dead of the past. We’ll lick death tonight, Walt, if you’ll help us.” Whitman leaves in something of a rush, only to return moments later, to sit in the grand machine and scream and scream while the dead flock to return.
         Mr. Adrian’s precise plotting is augmented by a decidedly perfect ending. Suffice to say, undeath is remarkably like life. Gob’s Grief , the product of a tragedy, ends in a contrarian affirmation of life as we know it.
         Gob’s Grief is filled with the voices of spirits, living and dead, who are wisps of ideas and things once read in old texts and, undoubtably, a very real human pain. The work is a trifle long, but Mr. Adrian’s mastery of the subject mitigates predictable flaws in execution. He adopts a tone reminiscent of post-war literature—Chamberlain’s matter-of-fact flourishes, even, at times, Whitman’s grandiose scope. There is nothing forced here, though it occasionally seems the author has restrained himself from going as far as is possible. Chris Adrian, the current leader of the next generation of writers, forgets—or has yet to fully absorb—that a novel is but a distanced cousin of a short story; in accordance, the pacing is occasionally less than sterling.
         But let that not overshadow the fact that Mr. Adrian is both a practiced and a talented storyteller. Gob’s Grief is a remarkable beginning for a young novelist destined to leave his mark on American letters.


[Editor's Note: Adrian is quoted from the January, 2000 issue of Bold Type Magazine.]