While reading The Children’s Hospital I could not sleep. When I did, the sleep was strange, extra-charged, heavy.
After I finished, I started telling everyone to read it. I did this zealously. I wrapped my copy in blue paper and taped a picture of a girl playing the accordion on the front and sent it to a friend.
He read it months later, also sleeplessly. And then he wrote me an angry letter. He thought the book was an accusation.
In The Children’s Hospital’s strangely familiar apocalyptic scenery, a flood has wiped out everything except a San Francisco children’s hospital and everyone inside it at the time of the biblical downpour. The characters are medical students, doctors, sick children, parents, and three angels. One angel provides the inhabitants of the hospital with everything they might need or want. One angel’s task is to bring more destruction, more punishment. One angel watches and records.
The main character of the book, the complicated hero, is a medical student named Jemma. She is haunted by the death of her young brother and others she loved. She wonders if maybe she is toxic, if she’s the reason so many people in her life have died. There was no one left for her in the world destroyed by the flood, except for those in the hospital with her. After the world is destroyed she watches blankly as her boyfriend Rob, another medical student, grieves.
Then things start to get stranger. I will not reveal how strange, but I will say this: there is both healing of those who started out sick, and infection of those who started out healthy. There is punishment with a religious tone to it. The hospital-ship’s inhabitants try to understand what crimes prompted this near-apocalypse, hoping to build something new and better. But in the end, there is no mercy for the ship’s adults, only for the sick children.
The Children’s Hospital‘s focus on anger and punishment was what kept my friend from sleeping, and made him feel (I suspect) that I sent it as pointed critique of him. The Old Testament flood and the sickness that defines the hospital floating through the aftermath struck him as moralistic. He thought I was telling him that the world was broken and we all (except for sick children) deserved to drown or, if not, float at sea. He thought I was advocating perfection, endorsing the belief of many in a vengeful god that punishes all of us who have failed to make the world better, and only made it worse.
This is not what the book said to me. This is not what I meant.
I wrote him back:
I wanted to send you The Children’s Hospital because it kept me up at night, but after you wrote me back I wondered at the difference between our interpretations of it.
You’re right to be bothered by the destroying angel’s mission to punish all the adults left in the world. I think the flood itself, and the destruction that follows, is not supposed to be a model of justice, but a warning. Both are supposed to show what’s wrong with a certain kind of punishment — whether it’s coming from god or someone who claims to speak for him.
In the book there are alternative models of justice: the angel that records all that’s happened offers hope of something else, a justice that forgives, and does not employ violence or illness. So for me, the book is not about anger, but about responsibility and how we carry it, read it, or ignore it.
And did you notice? God doesn’t appear in this book. These angels could be all deranged, hallucinating a god that does not exist, prompting them to prophesize and kill. The power they have to hurt and heal is not so different from the power people themselves have.
I loved The Children’s Hospital because it felt like there might be a flood soon in the moment I read it, because it felt like there was so much wrong and still so much funny and hot and strange in the world. I was talking to one of my father’s friends at the time, and her son was really depressed. She knew about how I was sick once; and when I told her about my friend’s younger brother who was also depressed, she told me that she thinks there are some of us who display what’s wrong around us in our bodies, that we carry it as a sign. I thought that was scary, but it felt true, and made me feel like we, the young and the sick, were important. And I was thinking about shit deals we’ve been given and the shit deals we are already giving and all the responsibility we carry. The book spoke to all that.
But it would be easy to read the book differently, to see it endorsing purification or bullshit moralistic Old Testament “justice,” and then it would be wrong. It would be counted among the many bad (in the sense of harmful) books. But I do not think it is that book. I think it is on the side, ultimately, of Jemma and the recording angel — not the comforting bitch of an angel, and not the perfectly violent destroying angel. It is on the side of life, sick or deranged or well or all three.
But then again, there is something moralistic in me. In the midst of my father’s friend’s grief over her son, I recommended the book to her. I thought about it after and how it might have gotten to her, as if I were telling her it was her fault her son is sick. Which in a way is what the book says, though not just that it is her fault, but many people’s faults. But I would never want to tell her that, sad enough as she is. And then I gave it to you, and I wonder if I was in some way trying to tell you something; that you, like me, should feel more at fault for what’s around us. If so, I wondered if I hadn’t learned what I should have learned from the book after all.
In any case, it’s a painful book, and it kept me awake too.