A Better Angel by Chris Adrian

08/08/08, San Francisco Chronicle

Let no one accuse Chris Adrian of being in thrall to that supreme tyrant of the domain of fiction: realism. Tinged sometimes with an apocalyptic hue, the Blakean landscapes of the stories in his third book, A Better Angel, feature, variously, angels, an Antichrist quite far from Damien, visionaries, a ten-year-old psychopath given to killing animals, and a conscious and free-roaming soul of a comatose patient on the edge of death. In keeping with Adrian’s other life as a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, hospitals, children and illness pervade these stories, elements that formed the mainstay of his novel, The Children’s Hospital. Their common currency is terminal cancer, debilitation, mental breakdown, altered states, drug addiction, psychosis, coma; in short, Adrian’s focus is on a kind of liminality, the one that comes from taking the biological frame of humankind to its farthest possible limit, or sometimes even beyond that to an unknowable territory.

A good point of entry into this is through any of the three stories that constitute Adrian’s mediation on that turning point both in America’s self-perception and in its regard in the mirror of others – 9/11. The first of these, ‘The Vision of Peter Damien’, perhaps the most powerful story in the book, is set in an indeterminate (Presbyterian? Amish?) religious community near Cleveland in the nineteenth-century (perhaps even the eighteenth; Adrian is careful to create a past unmarked by specificities). Here, during the period of the Lammas Feast in August, a young boy, Peter Damien, begins by having escalating visions of people falling off tall towers, of ‘two silver towers burning against the lovely blue sky’, of fast and enormous ‘angels’ colliding into the towers, of people ‘raining out of the sky’. Soon, other children are infected by these hallucinations, too, some to a greater degree than the others. Intensely imagined in a way that radically defamiliarizes this century’s most memorable and most witnessed moment, the story is both an extended, pitch-perfect working out of prolepsis and a supremely original retread of Ovidian metamorphoses, for Peter Damien and his friend, Sara, morph first into the planes then into the twin towers towards the end of the story, thereby giving a voice and consciousness to the inanimate structures in their moment of destruction.

The conflation of Ovid with the Book of Revelation is a haunting hybrid-authorial presence in A Better Angel. In ‘The Changeling’, narrated by the father of nine-year-old Carl, the child has become a different entity, possessed by the 2,998 dead from the terrorist attack and demanding blood sacrifice, justice, satisfaction, vengeance. His father cries out, ‘I don’t know what’s worse, or harder, to believe, that a little boy could be fucked-up enough to harbor the sort of sadness and rage that the entity presents us with every day, or that thousands of souls could be fused by a firebomb into a restless collection of spirits that hungers for a justice it can only define in terms of punishment.’ When the punishment does arrive, it can only be self-inflicted and foredoomed to be too little.

Even as Adrian smudges the boundaries between being and becoming, the atlas that takes shape is nothing less than a map of human suffering, loss, anguish. In another astonishing story, ‘Stab’, a young boy, struck mute by the death of his like twin, accompanies an orphaned girl in her nocturnal murders of animals. Both are looking for a graduation into liberation: she, into freeing her dead parents who she thinks are imprisoned in the great blue stone set in the pommel of her bodkin, he, into reunification with his dead brother who is forever beckoning to him. In the eponymous story, an unloved son (also a failed pediatrician and a drug addict) is harangued by his angel to visit his dying father in Florida. ‘ “Just put out your hand,” the angel kept telling me. “Touch him and make him well.” ’ But the final, ameliorative conversation between father and son doesn’t quite happen the way the angel had expected. In ‘A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death’, Cindy, who is almost permanently in hospital from a post-natal surgery that took away nearly all her alimentary canal, develops an unlikely crush on a shabby, dolorous, gay doctor. Intercut with Cindy’s story are passages from a book she’s writing, in which she visits agonizing illnesses on cute animals.

So much suffering, such an immense ocean of agony – it brings to mind Emily Dickinson’s lines about pain: ‘It has no Future – but itself –/ Its Infinite contain/ Its Past – enlightened to perceive/ New Periods – of Pain.’ This poisoned, unflinching redemption is held forward in the pared beauty of Adrian’s unshowy, lambent prose and gives the collection almost a bottomless depth.