Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Book Review: Gob's Grief by Chris Adrian

My wife and I sometimes play a game to select the next book I'll read. I take a selection from my to-read pile and, without showing her the covers or telling her the title or author, read the synopses aloud. She then picks the book that sounds the most interesting. It takes away some of the extraneous things that influence a decision of what to read, balances out my familiar tropes, and often comes up with interesting results, especially since we don't always share taste in books.

So there we were a few weeks ago, playing this game. And on this occasion, when I had read all five blurbs, I knew exactly which book I wanted to read. Fortunately, she was in agreement. Indeed, her first words were: 'I can't believe you bothered to read the others after the third one. That sounded great!' And this is the synopsis that won us both over.

One summer during the American Civil War, eleven -year-old twins Gob and Tomo Woodhull together agree to forsake their home and family in Licking County, Ohio, for the glories of the Union Army. But on the night of their departure, Gob suffers a change of heart, and when Tomo is killed in his very first battle, Gob is left to endure the guilt and grief that will later fuel his obsession with building a vast machine that will bring Tomo - indeed, all the Civil War dead - back to life. 
As Gob grows up his obsessions deepen and he attracts a host of drifters: a brilliant surgeon, a suffragette, and the forlorn poet, Walk Whitman, all of whom have lost someone they love. As this strange crew starts to assemble the machine, it comes to seem more and more likely that Gob's mad dreams will be realised. But the abolition of death and the success of the machine may come at a price more hideous and awful than any of them can know. 

And so, much to my delight, I came to read Gob's Grief. I absolutely loved The Great Night when I read it a couple of years ago, it was conceptually daring, stylistically exciting, and unlike anything I had read before. Gob's Grief is Adrian's debut novel, originally published in 2000 in the US and now being published in the UK for the first time alongside his other books - The Children's Hospital (2006), A Better Angel (2008) and The Great Night (2010). It is interesting to travel back to Adrian's origins as a writer, and Gob's Grief shows similarly impressive ambition and creativity.

Gob's Grief blends a host of historical figures - including Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and the flamboyant suffragists Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin - into a novel ultimately about the emotions that drive innovation. What unites all the characters is the spectre of death hanging over them: they have lost a loved one, or they can see or communicate with the dead. Adrian combines that anything-is-possible in this amazing new technological age attitude of the latter half of the Nineteenth Century with the trauma post-Civil War where the deaths of 600,000 young men are being mourned, and the assasination of a President has shaken the country: grief fuels change and nothing - even resurrecting the dead - seems impossible any longer.

One of the clever things Adrian does is take two things that must have seemed impossible in the 1860s - resurrecting the dead and equal rights for women - and tie them together so that they feel on a level par: each simultaneously impossible and yet with people fighting to make them happen. The plot then moves rapidly between transcendentalism and realism, replicating Whitman's creative development as a writer and becoming - as Whitman does in one of his most famous poems, 'Kosmos' - a hymn to the universe in all its strangeness and unpredictability. Gob's Grief feels no more 'out there' than novels like Frankenstein or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, a polymath approach to storytelling that is extravagent and enjoyable. 

And running throughout this is a heart-rending account of grief that is so powerful it can be hard to read. What Gob seeks to do here is construct an enormous monument to his grief, something that can express how much he misses his brother, how much he loved him, and how he would do anything to bring him back. At times, it feels as though Chris Adrian is writing directly to his own brother - whom the book is dedicated to and who died in a car crash.

A host a supporting characters feeds the plot and keeps it interesting, including Maci who injects a much needed note of scepticism and humour to proceedings, a scary cave dwelling 'educator' known as the Urfeist and a boy who appears one day, as if resurrected from the dead. This is a sprawling narrative, and there are many other noteworthy aspects to the book - not least the way that the prologue draws you in to deep affiliation with the character Tomo, only to kill him and not have him appear for the next 300 pages - and that probably says a lot about the book's clever construction and thought-provoking content. At times this can feel too much, as though plot and characters are secondary to the pyrotechnics on the page and the novel lacks a little central cohesion.

Gob's Grief is a engaging, rewarding novel, and Chris Adrian is one of the most innovative writers I've read in recent years. At its best this is a novel to delight both the heart and the head. And while it can feel a little bit like a debut novel that grew out of academic literary study of Walt Whitman, it is well worth reading, whether you already love Adrian or are about to discover that you do. He's definitely someone to check out if you haven't already. And Gob's Grief is a pretty great place to start!

Happy Reading.

Gob's Grief was published in hardback by Granta Books in February 2013, ISBN 9781847085818, 387pp

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