For a moment or two during the first flurry of working on this new story I’m wrangling, I thought, “is this a novel?” Reading Gob’s Grief concurrently to writing this thing, I realized pretty fast that no, no it is not. Gob’s Grief is a NOVEL. It’s three hundred and fifty pages long, is set against the aftermath of the Civil War and has WALT WHITMAN as a protagonist. And Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Caflin as antagonists. There is a five story machine meant to make death obsolete and a mystical child sprung from the aborted fetus of a real-life adulterous couple. There is Lincoln’s hat and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. This is a big, big piece of work.
My favorite section of Gob’s Grief was the first, in which the title character’s eleven year old twin brother, Tomo (these sons are fictional–Victoria Woodhull had only one in reality and he is neither of these) runs off to join the Civil War as a bugler. Gob balks at the last minute so Tomo is alone. He is adopted by a group of German soldiers who treat him so sweetly; he is terribly cute and naive and dies very, very quickly. The writing in this section is beautiful and immediate and reveals little of what is to come.
The rest of the book progresses through three large sections, each following a different one of the main characters–Walt Whitman, Will Fie and Maci Trufant–all of whom play a part in the creation of Gob’s crazy machine. The driving engine of their stories is that all of them lost brothers, and more, in the war and otherwise.
My occasionally conservative literary tastes might have preferred the book to stick to realism, rather than the mystical realism it instead took on. The novel is full of amazing threads–the Civil War hospitals and that era’s medical profession to the contradictions of the proto-feminist Spiritualist Victoria Woodhull to early war photography to homosexual desire within a 19th Century framework–I would have loved any of those to have been teased out into books in their own right. Of course, they all have been, by other writers. Chris Adrian had something much more layered, conceptual and daring in mind.