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m S ' JL· emew&\Lmfff Gob's Grief by Chris Adrian Broadway Books, 2000, 356 pp., $24.95 As Chris Adrian makes clear in his "Note" foUowing the novel, Gob's Grief is "not a historical novel, but it leans pretty heavily on history." Indeed, the novel is peopled with such prominent nineteenth-century figures as Walt Whitman, Victoria Woodhull, the Beechers and the Tlltons. The Civil War unfolds in lively battlefield and camp scenes—at Chickamauga, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania —and vivid hospital settings and routines, with the full measure of patient suffering, care and compassion , dying. The movements of the post-Civil War period sweep across the pages—the Women's Suffrage movement, the Free Love movement, Spiritualism—and theincreasing importance of technology is evident in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. But historical framing is only a starting point. This is a highly imaginative book, belonging to a great literary tradition of American works such as The Red Badge of Courage and A Farewell to Arms and notable works of more recent vintage such as The Things They Carried, The Pugilist at Rest and Saigon,Illinois. Likeall thesebooks, it is steeped in history, but place and circumstance only help shape; the fictional imagination is what counts. In Gob's Grief, with its strong dose of magic realism, certain fundamental metaphysical questions are the chief concern. Six hundred thousand dead. How does one respond to such carnage? For Spiritualists, the dead dwell "happily in the Summerland," and death itself is not real. Yet the experience of key characters in this novel suggests otherwise. Ghosts vigorously pursue them, urging them to seek out Gob Woodhull, whose machine will bring them back, freeing them from a greater desire to be flesh than the living can possibly understand. For Gob, whose brother, Tomo, died at Chickamauga, this machine is his life's work. It will bring Tomo back. Grief is not enough; grief helps the living cope, but what about the dead? For Walt Whitman, the answer is that "a great work ought to be coming, oughtn't it?" With these two concepts, grief and a "great work," we have in embryo the idea that drives the main plot of this novel. What is needed is something that will "articulate the formless grief that [has] saturated the world of the living." In an age of industrialization and rapidlyexpanding applied science, what other answer than technology? What other solution to a deeply held, widely shared affective response than to give it the rational order of science? Gob's machine 196 · The Missouri Review wül bring back all who died in the Civil War, and all who died before it, and eliminate death for the future. The veil between death and life wiU bepierced. And Gob has certainlyprepared for this undertaking by his long tutelage under the Urfeist, a fantastical , ogre-like creature who with an iron hand instructed his young pupil in the fundamentals of machines as weU as the necromancer's arts. From its earliest form, that of a sheep, his machine soon evolves to look like a person, then "a fashionable angel." (Note the progression here, up the scale of the Great Chain of Being.) In its final form, it is "an édifice," a gargantuan "engine" that takes up aU five floors of the mansion Gob inherited from the Urfeist. To do its job, the engine must incorporate "the crucial element ofdesire," musthave a "battery"—namely, WaltWhitman himself . One cannot help but see the Faustian questworking here, in the human presumption, the interference with the natural order, the overreaching. In its final performance, first with Whitman in the "gatehouse," screaming in unfathomable pain, then Gob taking his place, the engine ultimately explodes. Gob dies; Tomo mysteriously appears, exiting the fiery building. Some years later, Tomo is a man with a faulty memory but one who can, at one point, realize that it was not Gob who died at Chickamauga—it was he. He wants to believe in the theory of "undying." He seems, to the reader, to be a death-in-life figure. Gob's Griefis certainly a provocative first novel. Its power comes not only from its theme, which is...


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pp. 196-197
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