Sunday, January 21, 2001
When Walt Whitman wrote "In this head the all baffling brain/in it and below it the making of heroes," near the middle of "I Sing the Body Electric," he probably didn't imagine that more than a century later Chris Adrian would use a fictionalized portrayal of Big Daddy Walt as a human battery to bring back the dead of the Civil War.
In "Gob's Grief" (Broadway, $24.95), Adrian employs the quirks and hopes of our human heads to address the baffling nature of grief, obsession and how, individually and collectively, we forge heroes. Unfortunately, Adrian's uneven novel shorts out repeatedly ï¿½ the result of poor pacing, little psychological insight and lackluster prose.
A lifeless depiction
In 1863, at the age of 11, Thomas Jefferson Woodhull, Tomo, runs off to fight for the Union. A scant few weeks into his service, Tomo is killed by a bullet to the head. His brother, Gob, angry at himself for not going with him, loses himself in a profound grief that lasts for decades, culminating in a medical and mechanical vision to bring Tomo ï¿½ and all the dead ï¿½ back to life.
With the zeal of a mad scientist and the aid of a reluctant Whitman, sad doctor Will Fie, wife Maci Trufant, an imp and a sneakily devilish mentor, Gob builds a five-story contraption he hopes will rescue Tomo from death and return him to the good life in Manhattan.
Ambitious in scope, "Gob's Grief" covers the gruesome battles and casualties of the Civil War, the rise of various fields of medicine and the sciences in the 1860s and 1870s, the burgeoning feminist movement (Gob and Tomo are the fictional sons of 19th-century feminist Victoria Woodhull), the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and Lincoln's funeral procession. But for all his tinkering, construction and add-on structures can't bring the novel to its full life.
Adrian slogs through the first 100 pages with little that stands out. His characters speak with the same voice, they rarely share their thoughts and the narrative inches along with an "and then ï¿½" quality. Clunkers such as "He pumped Walt's arm and with every shake Walt got a feeling, a happy feeling, as if this young fellow were pumping him up with joy," and "Gob was dashed with horror, as if someone had filled a bucket with poor liquid horror and dumped it over his head," continually undercut any strides that Adrian may be making.
An undeveloped story
What's so frustrating about "Gob's Grief" is the novel's inability to draw you into a world that should be fascinating ï¿½ Whitman's bawdy yawps, a feverish world of spirits that evokes colonial master Charles Brockden Brown, the ethical questions of photographing dead soldiers, the inchoate Progressive Era, women's struggle for voting rights, not to mention the grand, tragic proscenium of the Civil War.
The characters of Walt, Gob, Will and Maci get fully developed in the their own sections, with Adrian's sections looping back on one another to play up the melodramatic mystery element: Will Gob and friends trump death?
But the sections end up fighting each other with their shared similarities to the point where you wonder if Adrian has taken the 19th-century trope of "doubling" and simply doubled it. All four of the main characters lose a sibling in the war, all four (and seemingly everyone else in the novel) see dead people ... and a lot of dead people. Everyone ï¿½ even the minor characters ï¿½ is dinky variations on the same theme ï¿½ febrile eccentrics governed by visions of ghastly doom and unfocused hope.
It's too bad, because Adrian crafts several moments where the novel shows tremendous promise.
Will Fie, the focus of Section II, becomes an assistant to a Civil War photographer, witnessing a particularly gruesome side of the war. To address his demons, Will builds a glass shed on his roof, constructed from photographs of the dead. He prepares to sit in the room and contemplates loss.
Again, though, Adrian proves his own worst enemy when he undermines a potentially powerful scene with a litany of questions better left implied, "But what? Would the white ghosts assault him? Would he hear Jolly's voice whispering a question? Would the mist that might be Jolly's spirit depart from the place and settle over Will like manna?"
Similarly, Gob's wacky machine ï¿½ part H.G. Wells, part Willy Wonka ï¿½ is a wonder stuffed with wires, pans, valves and even some of Will's pictures of the dead. However, readers never get a sense of what it looks like, the science behind it or how it really operates.
As the novel progresses, one has to ask why Adrian doesn't trust himself or readers enough to go with one notion for a prolonged period of time. Welcome scenes of comedy ï¿½ a bawdy masquerade ball, crazy relatives, gallows war humor ï¿½ are cut short. Characters disappear for enormous stretches, relationships spring full grown from one encounter and the modernist narrative stylings ï¿½ ala "Rashoman" ï¿½ seem forced and not convincing.
The resultant hodge-podge reads like Gob's cobbled-together machine ï¿½ a bunch of things, but no real structure. "Gob's Grief" wants to sing the body electric, but Adrian can't consistently keep the current flowing.
ï¿½ Mark Luce sits on the board of directors for the National Book Critics Circle.