Chris Adrian writes piercing, astonishing, deeply serious stories
that sound utterly ridiculous if you only describe their plots. His second
novel, The Children's Hospital, one of the best novels I've read in the
last five years, is about a hospital that turns into an ark during an
apocalyptic flood and bears its inhabitants towards a new land. How corny is
that? Yet Adrian pulls it off because, though his conviction in his own
fictional world never wavers, he persistently undercuts the ponderousness of his
symbolism with irreverence, and the combination comes off sounding a lot like
Adrian's literary terrain is best categorized as magical realism, in which none of his characters are surprised when supernatural happenings overtake their otherwise recognizable world. One story features an angel who begs her human host to take another hit of heroin, and then turns from a hag into a beautiful maiden the instant he does. In another story, a little boy's soul disappears from his body, replaced by a chorus of voices who cry for vengeance for the 9/11 attacks. "We are here because your faithlessness called us to you, and we will stay until you remedy it with sincerity and sacrifice," the boy changeling growls. His father makes it macaroni and cheese.
The stories are, without exception, deeply disturbing. Consider, for instance, "Stab," in which a girl who has lost both parents befriends a boy whose Siamese twin has just died. Together, they roam the neighborhood at night with a dagger, murdering pets and woodland creatures. Or "A Child's Book of Sickness and Death," featuring Cindy, an "ex-twenty-six-week miracle preemie," now eight years old, lacking most of her intestines, a regular in the pediatric ward, and the author of a children's book about fantastically diseased animals: "See the zebra? She has atrocious pancreas oh! Her belly hurts her terribly .Her stripes have begun to go all the wrong way, and sometimes her own poop follows her, crawling on the ground or floating in the air, and calls her cruel names. Suffer, zebra, suffer!" Adrian writes with a macabre, knowing humor that always drives toward a weighty theological quandary, what you'd get if you crossed the movie "Harold and Maude" with the novels of Marilynne Robinson.
A Better Angel is a spiritual book that is noteworthy for what it lacks. There are no gods or saviors here, only a few angels and one very reluctant antichrist. The characters are inhabited or visited by entities they do not understand and who rarely strike them as divine. The people of Adrian's stories seem determined to live ordinary secular lives, despite the miracles that erupt into the everyday, as when a nineteenth-century farmboy begins seeing visions of people plummeting from a skyscraper. They don't want to know that the world contains more than three dimensions, in part because the veil that shields us from such realms only flutters aside when there is suffering.
If the story collection has a flaw, it is repetition. It comes as no surprise to learn from interviews that Adrian lost a brother in a car accident fourteen years ago, because so many of his characters are hollowed out and made otherworldly by grief, and so many of his stories are wish fulfillments of the desire to bring back a lost one. Three of the stories are haunted by the specter of 9/11, a preoccupation which feels somewhat belated in 2008, as if Adrian is reaching for a bridge between his personal grief and a more universal state of fallenness.
For all his invocations of a divine realm beyond the known world, Adrian is coy about his religious beliefs. The title story perhaps offers the best insight into his perception of human nature. A drug-addled doctor who has conned his way into the profession also happens to have a pesky angel who has dogged him since childhood, urging him to be his better self. When his father becomes ill, she steps up her pleas for him to assume his full godhood. "Just put out your hand to him and he will be healed," she exhorts. "Just put out your hand to him, and you will undo all the pain you've caused me." The doctor refuses, and just before his father dies, he tells him, "I want a better angel, Dad." I venture that this is Adrian's spiritual worldview, that we are all shadowed by divinity but disbelieving and dismissive of the power we already have, always wanting more.
This review was originally published in September 2008, and has been updated for the July 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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