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Chris Adrian's A Better Angel

Highlights from Issue 36: Expatriate

(FSG)

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008


A Better Angel: Stories
By Chris Adrian
(FSG)

Reviewed by Alexander Provan

In “The Sum of Our Parts,” one of the stories included in A Better Angel, the reader is introduced to Beatrice, a comatose woman with an “unusual condition” that allows her soul to wander unseen through the hospital while her body awaits a new liver. She cultivates a particular fondness for the workers in the pathology department, one of whom remarks that he has been in love with her since he “heard her story and handled her blood for the first time.” That story is brief: Beatrice jumped off a seven-floor parking garage, compelled by “a crushing sadness under which she had labored for most of her life, and which she had never blamed on anybody.” After assuring the reader of the innate quality of this sadness, she nevertheless wonders if it might be traced to the suicide of her first boyfriend, whom Adrian describes, in all seriousness, as “the person who taught her that there’s no such thing as a boy who can fly.”

The preponderance of the narrative is devoted to a tedious portrayal of the overnight shift in the pathology department, a place as replete with inarticulate sorrow assigned to inchoate characters as with urine and stool samples. Though Beatrice spots moments of intimacy and joy, the workers mostly seem inclined to do what she has done: surrender their corporeal selves and migrate elsewhere; this reviewer, too, found such a prospect appealing by the end of the story, when Beatrice’s body expires, freeing her soul to pass beyond the hospital’s walls. She “ran across the street and over the bridge,” Adrian writes. “Halfway across she took off, went up and away, in search of a place without loneliness and desire; without misery and rage, without disappointment; without crushing, impenetrable sadness.”

One automatically assumes that Adrian is proposing the existence of such a place as heaven (metaphorical though it may be). If sadness is universal, and death is the only way of escaping it, then context is unimportant, and the characters described in this story are superfluous. In fact, the entire story has been made superfluous. Adrian’s method here is that of a literary squeegee man: He lurches toward your car, applies a thick coat of muddy liquid to your windshield, then scrapes the glass dry and implores you to recompense him for his labor, though the windshield is no cleaner for it. It is not merely the staleness of the sentiment — life (mostly) sucks and then you die — that offends, but the service of the story to such a sentiment.

Elsewhere, Adrian addresses death and suffering with greater success. Many of his stories, which revolve around traumatized youths and downtrodden doctors and patients — the author himself is also a pediatrician — rely on arch humor to humanize characters that might otherwise be caricatures of torment. In “High Speeds,” for example, a precocious nine-year-old boy admonishes himself for being upset that nobody remembered his birthday: “Birthdays make nothing happen,” he writes in a note to himself. “They survive in the valley of their own making.” In another story, “Why Antichrist?,” a high school girl named Cindy employs a Ouija board to communicate with the spirit of her father, who was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. Cindy’s father indicates that one of her classmates is the Antichrist, and she spends the rest of the story trying to convince him of that fact. When he becomes upset after she suggests, in the midst of a make-out session, that he bears ultimate responsibility for 9/11, Cindy quips, “Don’t tell me I’m horrible when you’re the son of the fucking Devil.”

But too often Adrian’s stories are propped up by the hackneyed metaphysical conceits common to the down-market magical realism in vogue these days. His most recent novel, The Children’s Hospital, succeeded largely because it allowed a single scenario to be limned over 600 pages; more often than not, the story’s supernatural elements seem to be part of an altered world, not unwarranted intrusions into our own. In the book, an apocalyptic flood wipes out all living things save the inhabitants of a single children’s hospital, its prescient architect having designed the building to float. The story tracks the survivors as they consider their common fate and endeavor to resuscitate human civilization, with omnipresent angels acting as companions, sibyls and narrators. (Angels also figure prominently in Adrian’s first novel, Gob’s Grief.) But the otherworldly landscape is just that: a backdrop for an adroit rendering of the hospital cum ark’s social world. As the doctors and patients float interminably they ponder the questions of life, death and the beyond — certainly, one might expect such questions to crop up with greater frequency after such a cataclysm. But the metaphysical ruminations lead nowhere, and the story ultimately devolves into a series of suspect narrative devices, including the incessant intervention of angels, which end up granting healing powers to one character, and the production of ark-wide talent shows.

The nine stories in A Better Angel employ many artifices similar to those in the novel but show little of the same ambition. While the tableau presented in The Children’s Hospital requires suspension of disbelief on behalf of the reader, these stories call for a suspension of skepticism. Though Adrian resorts to fantastical mechanisms, he is more concerned with (and more adept at portraying) the quotidian aspects of living and dying. At best, the metaphysical anomalies magnify and elevate the details of his characters’ lives. But often the prose falters, the dei ex machinis flutter about, and the reader is asked to accept imagination as its own reward.

Adrian should not be faulted for failing to parse out the significance of all this suffering, a failure endemic to literature obsessed with death, discounting inspirational and biblical genres. Reading A Better Angel, I was reminded of the cult of melancholia that arose in England in the 17th century. In a time of social and religious uncertainties brought on by the Protestant reformation, a moment that birthed the Puritans who eventually colonized the New World (and congregated in Boston, where Adrian lives), adherents such as the composer John Dowland and the writer John Donne struggled to come to terms with death after its religious meaning had lost all fixity. In his poem “An Anatomy of the World,” Donne offers as good a summation of A Better Angel as any: “There is no health; physicians say that we / At best enjoy but a neutrality. / And can there be worse sickness than to know / That we are never well, nor can be so?”

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