September 2008

Sean P. Carroll


A Better Angel: Stories by Chris Adrian

A prototypical fiction apprenticeship usually begins with a carefully crafted collection of stories, much heralded of course, that introduces the reader to themes that may recur in a debut novel or in some cases preoccupy the writer in question for the remainder of his career. Chris Adrian has upended this formula by previously publishing two majestic novels, Gob’s Grief and The Children’s Hospital. Gob’s Grief focuses on the siblings Gob & Tomo Woodhull, fictional twin sons of Victoria Woodhull. Tomo elects to run off and join the Union Army while Gob has second thoughts and stays behind. Tomo’s death, at the Battle of Chickamauga, haunts Gob and is the impetus behind his maniacal construction of a machine, powered by the animus of Walt Whitman nonetheless, meant to reanimate the Civil War dead. This impressive and auspicious debut was surpassed by The Children’s Hospital, an epic yet profoundly personal tale that opens with the Earth besieged by a second flooding. The hospital is all that remains in this newly blank world and the saga that unfolds within its walls is populated by angels, a plague known as the botch and a mysterious lad with the sobriquet of Pickie Beecher. Jemma Claflin, a mere medical student, is blessed (or cursed?) by a mystical power and finds herself at the center of this drama to salvage humanity.

A Better Angel, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is Adrian’s first story collection and it is a marvel of compactness without any diminution of authorial mastery, while still evoking the otherworldly scope and range of his previous work. The nine stories share many similarities -- intelligent and misinterpreted child narrators, the powerful bond between brothers, a trafficking in the spiritual realm and above all a reverberation of the cataclysmic events of September 11th. “High Speeds” which opens the book centers around Con, a nine-year-old who is “too smart for his own good” and is dealing with the death of his father in a drug-smuggling plane crash. While his brother Caleb seeks refuge in the pure fantasy realm of Mars via Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, etc. Con is struggling with his newly altered landscape. Caleb’s Martian escapades offer a stark contrast to the dangerous relationship that Con develops with his teacher along with the violent antipathy that comprises his inner world. “The Sum of Our Parts” deals with Beatrice, an attempted suicide, whose spirit navigates the labyrinth of the hospital while she resides in a comatose state. Her interest in the mundane lives of the hospital staff and her studied indifference to her own fate is an apt rendering of the miasma of emotions that afflict the suicidal. One can’t help but think of Gob’s Grief when reading “A Hero of Chickamauga” about present day Civil War re-enactors. Tomo’s virulent hatred for the Rebs is eloquently transmuted into the almost homicidal rage of a female re-enactor. The title story revolves around an incompetent pediatrician who is drafted by his sisters to care for their dying father. The narrator has been visited by his angel since he was six but there has been no divine intervention in his life because, “I’m not that kind of angel.” This all-too-human angel reflects the foibles of mankind and refutes the benevolent New Age stereotype of the heavenly creature.

Adrian is at his finest in the several stories that utilize September 11th and all of its attendant horror. In “The Visions of Peter Damien” the children of an archaic Southern town are repeatedly visited by the images of the burning towers on the eve of a harvest festival. Whether these images are meant as punishment or as a guiding revelation is ambiguous but the juxtaposition of this modern nightmare and the agrarian rituals of the Lammas festival reflects the shattering of the American aura of invincibility that took place that day. “The Changeling” is a contemporary fable about the cause of a rapid personality change in Carl, another intellectually precocious child who witnessed the towers falling, on television, at age three. Adrian’s reinvention of this tale is chilling and the sacrifices that “Carl” demands of his father create the necessary doubt, a shattered psyche or the mythical creature, in the reader's mind. Fans of Adrian’s previous books will appreciate the cameo of Pickie Beecher as Carl’s hospital roommate. The final story, “Why Antichrist?” touches fleetingly on 9/11 but it is predominantly a cautionary tale about “sadness cleaving to sadness” and the volatile alchemical stew of teenage emotions that erupt when an Ouija board session brings unexpected results. “Stab” and “A Child’s Book of Sickness & Death” complete the collection. The latter story mines the same territory as The Children’s Hospital while the former involves escalating animal sacrifice, twin brothers, and the ultimate choice we all have, life or death.

A Better Angel is an illuminating book and its morality tales, if they are in fact that, force the reader to confront a darker version of reality nestled beneath and within the ostensibly placid world of children, as well as our own culpability in their infinitely complex realm. Adrian displays as much skill and inventiveness in this collection as he has in his two novels and is clearly a writer whose vision and voice should be heralded.

A Better Angel: Stories by Chris Adrian
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN 0374289905
227 Pages