These angels are useless. The heavenly agents that populate Chris Adrian’s new story collection, A Better Angel, sit idly by their hapless wards, disappointed and impotent. Their existence, it seems, is incidental, and at times they are nothing more than a higher order of fuck-ups. Which somehow makes these angels strikingly believable.
A trinity of woes dictates the nine stories herein — sadness, illness, and death. It’s hard not to view this as the thematic culmination of Adrian’s educational background: he holds and MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshops (tantamount to a masters degree in sadness); an MD from the University of Virginia (illness); and is currently a divinity student (mapping out, I assume, the world of death). Thankfully these narratives are not so academic or esoteric as one might fear; Adrian explores his subjects with caution, respect, and most of all, imagination.
If the angels might be described as inactive, then many of the characters can be called hyperactive. Adrian’s protagonists range from children to the geriatric, but don’t waver in their desire for pain. In this world, it seems that suffering is the most effective means of communication and solidarity. "My father warned me that sadness cleaves to sadness," says the protagonist of "Why Antichrist?" – in which a sixteen-year old lacrosse player discovers that he is the devil incarnate. "And that depressed people go around in hangdog packs." This collection is itself one such hangdog pack.
The narrator of "Stab" – a seven-year-old boy who is mute except for his narration – wants to die because he knows death will reunite him with his dead brother. Likewise, in "The Changeling," a father mutilates himself because causing himself pain is the only way to bring his son out of his ominously catatonic state. In "The Vision of Peter Damien," the eponymous character wants to be sick, and rubs his skin with hickory root to simulate jaundice, so he can be more like his brothers and sisters. For many of these characters, death and illness are natural as sunlight. All but one of the protagonists has lost a loved one before their story even begins. It’s only natural that their ambitions pertain to more sickness and more death.
The rules of Adrian’s world are vague enough to be plausible. The semi-magical setting is akin to that of Karen Russell’s recent collection of stories St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, or any collection that George Saunders has put out in the last decade. Here there are angels, and there are demonic, masochistic children. The prose and dialogue are striking for their plainness (by which I do not mean dullness) – as it’s hard to imagine Dali creating his surrealist designs with ordinary paint. But when Adrian begins to add in elements of the real-real world – Happy Meals and Spiderman, for example – his stories become less convincing. In fiction (and maybe life in general), the balance between real and unreal is always tenuous. Perhaps because so much of Adrian’s world is heavenly, when Earth gets involved it is too obviously mundane.
In "The Vision of Peter Damien," for example, a Big City Doctor is brought in to help out the community when a sort of epileptic illness spreads from child to child.
"An upsetment in the blood," said Dr. Herz, summoned all the way from Cleveland by Sara’s father. For her he prescribed opium and antimony and cinchona.
Both the diagnosis and prescription are, to say the least, archaic. When the reader finds out this story is actually about 9/11, then, it’s shocking – and not in a revelatory sort of way. Sadly, it’s more like the obvious twist in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village than any sort of meaningful convergence of tragic old world and tragic new. Still, when Adrian delves into the metaphysical parts of this same story, his narrative strength shows through. His prose is heady enough to support Big Statements — he has the rare ability to talk about souls and be sincere, as with Sara’s final revelation:
The mirror me – the one that is all of this world and all surfaces – is spotted up and bruised and jaundiced and thin, and my hair, as Mother tells me, has lost its spirit. But beyond my body I am a growing giantess, and every time I enter another vision I get a little closer to an end that I know is not death. You are a giant too – I see it no matter how you seek to hide from me. We stand over all the others the way the towers once stood over us, before we became them. Don’t you understand the progression – from frail little person to soaring angel to monolith? What next, except the sky above it all, and a spirit that comprehends everything, and is apart from nothing?
Thankfully, Adrian plays heavily to his powers. There are stories so thoroughly imagined and expertly written that alone they warrant the price of the entire collection.
"A Better Angel" succeeds because it contains a character that is keenly aware of his failures, but still does nothing about them. Early in life Carl was granted a sort of guardian angel, a privilege given only to people destined to go on to greatness ("There were fewer than I expected, and as many who were greatly bad as greatly good," he says.) His angel, though, has no power of Carl’s actions, and every time there’s a chance to make a bad decision, he makes it. Upon viewing his 7th-grade classmate’s ‘pooty,’ Carl says he first "understood that I could want – so badly – something the angel thought I shouldn’t." Finally he is summoned to take care of his dying, cancer-ridden father. Armed with Ativan and morphine, he adheres to the one-for-you-one-for-me policy, and spends his last night with his father in a druggy haze. Meanwhile his angel becomes more and more perverted and jealous, unable to guide his hand. "If you were a great man," she tells him, "If you were president – and you could have been president – then I would be a national conscience!" Carl is sympathetic because so many of us are so much like him — he isn’t a bad person, just a little lazy; his angel’s inefficacy grants us an unwanted hint into just world the dying father may be entering.
"A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death" re-introduces us to some of the characters from Adrian’s recent novel The Children’s Hospital, in which the world is flooded in seven miles of water and the only entity to survive are the NICU and PICU wards of a San Francisco hospital (it’s narrated by angels). Here we focus on Cindy Flemm, who was born with a foot less of small intestine than normal. Sixteen years old, she proudly sports tube tops and hot pants in the antiseptic hallways. One night she develops a crush on Dr. Chandra (also a transplant from the novel), who is something of a tragic fool, severely under-qualified for his job and with pants that inadvertently ride low on his girlish hips. Much to Cindy’s disappointment, Chandra is gay. "How can someone so unattractive, so unavailable, so shlumpy, so low-panted, so pitiable, keep rising up, a giant in my thoughts," she wonders. It emerges that she is attracted to impossibilities, to the allure of cures that will never come (even if the cure is death – death is impossible for her, we find out). The interplay of her desire for health and desire for love, and how she goes about reaching for them, is something wonderful to witness. Finally Cindy submits to her position, which perhaps stands in for the overarching philosophy of the book:
It seems to me, who should really know better, that all the late, new sadness of the past twenty-four hours ought to count for something, ought to do something, ought to change something, inside of me, or outside in the world. But I don’t know what it is that might change, and I expect that nothing will change – children have died here before, and hapless idiots have come and gone, and always the next day the sick still come to languish and be poked, and they will lie in bed hoping not for healing, a thing which the wise have all long given up on, but for something to make them feel better, just for a little while, and sometimes they get this thing, and often they don’t.