Note: Chris Adrian’s A Better Angel has been selected as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2008 by the New York Times. Below is an essay that I wrote to submit to the Virginia Quarterly Review‘s Young Reviewers contest—an unsuccessful entry, probably at least in part because it ended up feeling more like a lit crit paper than a review. In any case: I have mixed feelings about A Better Angel, but I do think Adrian is a writer to watch, and his first novel, Gob’s Grief, is extraordinary. In the essay below, I take a look at A Better Angel with an emphasis on Adrian’s explorations of ideas about death and the soul.
Death-dealing hazards abound in Chris Adrian’s fiction, lying low the parents, siblings, and lovers of his characters with an actuarially improbable regularity. His most recent book, the short story collection A Better Angel, has a body count worthy of a Hollywood action flick. In “High Speeds,” a substitute teacher mourning her brother forms a bond with a nine-year-old student whose father has died in a plane crash. Both central characters in “Why Antichrist?” have also lost their fathers—one to cancer, and the other to the terrorist attacks on September 11. Disconsolate over the course of her life in the years since the death of a childhood friend, the narrator of “The Sum of Our Parts” flings herself from atop a parking structure. Dead brothers haunt the minds of the central characters in both “The Hero of Chikamauga” and “Stab”—and in the latter story, Adrian throws in a lately orphaned neighbor girl for good measure.
Death so dominates the lives and consciousnesses of Adrian’s characters that they often come across as less than fully human. There is something robotic about their sorrow; it’s as if mourning were the sole task that they have been programmed to perform. Adrian is a practicing physician, but he treats the characters in his stories more like anonymous subjects in a medical study: he is interested in their suffering only insofar as it might help him come to an improved academic understanding of death and grief. His approach as a writer is rational, philosophical, and abstract—and thus less concerned with the construction of psychologically realistic portraits of mourning characters than with exploring the meaning of death.
Unusually for either a fiction writer or a doctor, Adrian is also a divinity student at Harvard University. He fills his stories not only with corpses and their mourners, but also with prophetic visions, demonic possessions, and guardian angels. In one story, the Antichrist even makes an appearance. But, for all their Christian allusions and overtones, Adrian’s stories are more supernatural than overtly religious. He certainly offers scant evidence of any kind of faith—his suffering characters do not find any kind of peace or closure through their interactions with the divine. Most, in fact, end up sick, injured, insane, or worse.
Adrian then, is a doctor who writes stories about people who cannot be healed, and a divinity student who seems to doubt the power of religion to soothe troubled souls. Instead of offering assurances, he uses his fiction to pose big, old-fashioned, and largely unanswerable questions. What happens when we die? What does it mean for the body to fail? What happens to the conscious mind after the death of the body? Are the dead truly lost to the living forever? Adrian’s central concern is not healing, but rather the relationship between the body and the soul.
He gives that particular subject a thorough and sustained examination in “The Sum of Our Parts,” in which Beatrice, a patient awaiting a kidney transplant, has achieved a strange and incomplete separation from her corporeal self. “That part of her that was not her broken body” has become detached, and has gained the power to see into the minds of the members of the hospital staff. Adrian won’t spell out exactly what this part of Beatrice might be—whether he intends it to be her mind, her spirit, her soul, or something else entirely. But he does tell us that Beatrice continues to feel a connection to her body: whenever she attempts to leave the grounds of the hospital, her physical self invariably draws her back.
For a quasi-disembodied soul, Beatrice pays extraordinary attention to the physicality of the members of the hospital staff who are involved with her treatment. Looking into the mind of a nursing assistant named Frank, Beatrice gleans that he detests one coworker for having a “mousy” face, and meanwhile worries that his own arms might look “thin and weak” in his scrubs. A pathology lab worker named Bonnie ponders a coworker’s unusually prominent ears, and wonders if they might have shaped his personality. Several characters spend moments of reverie recalling the physical comforts of holding their loved ones, and also imagining what it might be like to touch or even inhabit the bodies of their coworkers. Adrian’s point is clear: our bodies determine who we are, and the division between our physical selves and our conscious selves cannot be neatly or easily drawn.
All the same, Adrian avoids taking a definitive stance on the question of whether or not the soul expires along with the body. In an unnerving scene near the story’s end, Beatrice coolly witnesses her own organs being harvested and prepared for donation. She begins to feel the loosening of her physical self’s hold on her consciousness, until she finally floats free. But there the story abruptly ends, leaving no way for a reader to judge whether Beatrice might have been bound for heaven or for oblivion.
For Adrian, medicine runs up against a wall of incomprehension when it comes to describing the lived experience of death, grief, illness, and suffering. This is why he won’t tell us what happens to Beatrice’s spirit after her body dies; and it’s also why the stories in A Better Angel so frequently move into the realm of the supernatural. Adrian is in no way skeptical of medical knowledge, or of reason’s power to make the world more comprehensible. But he knows that no pill or miracle surgical technique will ever cure human beings of their irrational and untenable belief that they must continue to exist even after their bodies die.
Death makes Adrian’s characters thoroughly unreasonable. They lose all perspective, clinging to counterfactual and often outright insane ideas in a desperate attempt to be rid of their grief. In “Stab,” Calvin, an eight-year-old boy who has lost his twin to cancer, begins sneaking out at night to accompany a neighbor girl as she captures and kills small animals. The girl—whom Adrian unfortunately names Molly Pitcher, severely disrupting an otherwise straightforward and serious tone—is an orphan whose parents were both killed in a car crash. Molly commits her acts of violence because she has come to believe that her parents will somehow be brought back to life by the blood of her victims. But her animal sacrifices bring no real dividends; in the end, Molly’s violence leaves a trail of bodies, none of which are resurrected.
Blood sacrifice also plays a significant role in the “The Changeling,” which tells the story of an otherwise-ordinary nine-year-old boy who suddenly begins to speak in the voices of the victims of September 11. When Carl’s father intentionally burns himself on the stove or slams his finger in a drawer, the spectacle of his self-inflicted pain causes the voices in the boy’s head to momentarily retreat. Realizing this, Carl’s father begins to inflict increasingly serious injuries upon himself, thereby succeeding in at least temporarily propitiating the angry ghosts who possess his son. But only temporarily—even when Carl’s father chops off his own hand with an ax, we have no real assurance that the demons have been driven from Carl for good. Carl has come to embody the incomprehensible pain engendered by the loss of so many lives in the terrorist attacks of September 11—and there is nothing that his father can do to bring about an end to suffering on that scale. “I don’t know what’s worse, or harder to believe,” Adrian wonders through the voice of Carl’s father: “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.” Either way, Carl is lost to his father forever.
This is the conclusion that Adrian reaches again and again in A Better Angel: that no kind of medicine, psychology, reason, religion, violence, or blood sacrifice will relieve the deep and unending pain of personal loss. Mourning grips Adrian’s characters so thoroughly that it possesses them, becoming part of their bodies and taking full control of their minds and lives. Much as Beatrice’s wandering soul can stray only so far from its physical counterpart, none of Adrian’s characters can hope to be rid of their grief; t has become part of them. Nothing short of death will end their suffering.
A doctor is expected to heal the body, and restless souls are alleged to find comfort in the divine. But Adrian—the doctor and divinity student—populates his stories with the untreatable dead and characters who suffer grief beyond all consolation. “A Better Angel,” the title story of his collection, is about a drug-addicted doctor who lacks faith in his ability to cure illness. “I make my living praising the health of well children,” he notes while explaining his choice of a medical specialty. “I love babies and I love ketamine, and that’s really why I became a pediatrician, not because I hate illness, or really ever wanted to make anybody better, or ever convinced myself that I could.” He cheated his way through med school, and remains in the profession largely because it offers him easy access to the drugs that feed his addiction. He feels an acute and highly specific kind of shame because of his failure as a doctor. “If I were a tree surgeon or a schoolteacher or a truffle-snuffler, or even a plain old junkie, then sickness would just be sickness, just something to be borne and not something I was supposed to be able to defeat.”
The narrator has been regularly visited by a guardian angel since childhood. This angel strongly disapproves of his self-destructive behavior—when he takes a hit, she “stretches and shakes her wings,” becoming larger and uglier in order to make her displeasure clear. All the same, she believes that he has the power within him to do great things—including curing his father, who has received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. “Put out your hand,” the angel implores him. “Touch him, and make him well.” Instead, the narrator trades doses of painkillers with his father and then watches him die through a drug-altered haze. He places his hands on his father only after “his face was cold and his open eyes already had the look of spoiling grapes”—too late to heal him, regardless of whether he’d ever possessed the power to do so. “I want a better angel,” he tells his father. “That’s all I need.” If there is such a thing as divine guidance, it has utterly failed the living, who remain impotent and terrified in the face of death.
Adrian’s characters struggle against grief and death, and always fail. All the same, several of them maintain a pathetic hope that the outcome might in their case be different. In “Stab,” Molly imagines that her acts of violence can resurrect her parents, and Caleb believes that he can talk to his dead twin while looking in the mirror. The characters in “High Speeds” try to outrun their mourning by driving fast and reciting Emily Dickinson poems about death; and in “The Changeling,” Carl’s father tries to exorcise the demons of September 11 by doing grievous injury to himself. Not one of these strategies is ultimately successful—but Adrian’s characters continue to try, and suffer terrible disappointment when their efforts come to nothing.
In “The Vision of Peter Damien,” a rural 19th-century town is stricken with a mysterious illness, which leaves many of its residents bedridden, feverish, and prone to prophesying about flaming towers and people falling through the air. Although the evidence points toward this being a vision of doom, the local minister, Reverend Wallop, insists that the town’s strange plague must have an upside: “It doesn’t happen for nothing—we are not transported so fantastically for no reason. The vision is a challenge and its meaning is a cure.” But in this story—as in all of Adrian’s stories—supernatural “transportation” does not lead to any kind of cure. The town’s affliction is in truth a vision of the future horrors of September 11, 2001; no positive outcome is possible for anyone involved.
One character in A Better Angel does cease to harbor such outlandish expectations: Beatrice, the quasi-disembodied soul of “The Sum of Our Parts,” who has so little hope that she sincerely desires to die. At one point, Beatrice recalls a childhood friend who, believing that he could fly, jumped from the roof of his parents’ house and plunged to his death. Adrian writes that Beatrice “would always think of him as the beginning of a long arc of sadness, as the person who taught her that there’s no such thing as a boy who can fly.” Unlike Adrian’s other characters, Beatrice is at peace with her loss. She doesn’t kill herself out of grief for her dead friend, but rather out of the sense of disappointment that she feels after having accepted the inevitability and permanence of death. It’s hardly encouraging that the only character who comes to any kind of closure in A Better Angel kills herself shortly thereafter. In Chris Adrian’s world, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
For all the obsessive analytical attention Adrian pays to death in his stories, he offers very little in the way of substantive insight into its nature. Not surprisingly, he cannot tell us what it means to die, or what happens to our consciousness after death. But Adrian does succeed in his effort to capture the anguish felt by his characters as they struggle against inevitable death and the permanence of their loss. Adrian’s stories express a desperate wish to believe that a divine act or a miracle of modern medicine might actually remove the barrier between the living and the dead. At the same time, Adrian the physician and rationalist knows how unlikely it is that anything of the sort could ever come to pass. Taken together, the stories in A Better Angel construct a compelling narrative about the deep and tormenting disappointment that comes with the loss of faith.