Chris Adrian?s writing wants to alter the worldview of his readers; like a drug, it enters one?s veins, seeps into the area of the brain that houses the conscience, and attempts to remove any traces of the sappy sensitivity that so often infiltrates conversations about illnesses physical and psychological. If that sounds like a lofty goal for a writer not yet 40, consider his other achievements: Adrian received an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, then went to medical school. After working as an emergency room physician, specializing in pediatrics, he began divinity school at Harvard. Such a steeping in the blood, guts, and soul of humanity bestows upon his cynicism an undisputable authority. He has seen us at our lowest and our worst.
A Better Angel collects Adrian?s short fiction, first published in The New Yorker, Esquire, and McSweeney?s, among other places. They are less experimental in form than his earlier novels — Gob?s Grief (2001) and The Children?s Hospital (2006). Though elements of fantasy and horror do appear, these stories crystallize Adrian?s professional interests: people, particularly children, struggling with pain (a suffering of the body) or grief (a suffering of the spirit).
His characters struggle to find a release from their overwhelming disease (and dis-ease). Sadly, everyone seems locked in a private prison of affliction, unable to connect with others. “The Sum of Our Parts” describes a woman rendered comatose after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Her ghost roams the halls of the hospital, watching lab technicians as they work and listening as they lust silently and unrequitedly for each other. “Let it happen this way,” the ghost intones, praying that these people find joy and comfort together. Ultimately, however, she realizes her impotence. She can do nothing but remember why she tried to kill herself: to find a place “without loneliness and desire.”
In Adrian?s world, both passion and compassion are corrupt. “Stab” depicts a young girl who survived a car accident that kills her parents; she retaliates by stabbing small animals. The narrator, made mute by his own tragedy, pals around with her in the hopes that her violence might bring him closer to his dead twin brother. An equally twisted bond forms when a young woman becomes convinced that her classmate is the Antichrist and thus responsible for her father?s death, which she asks him to describe as they make out in the backseat of a car. In “High Speeds,” a substitute teacher believes that an angry, brilliant nine-year-old boy shares her sense of dislocation in the world. But her kindness quickly turns to malevolence as she tempts and taunts him, forcing the boy to realize that the world will not give him what he wants, whether toys or love, so therefore these things must be stolen. Even charity in a children?s ward gets recognized for its base, narcissistic underpinnings:
There are always new toys, every time I come, and the room is kept pretty and inviting, repainted and recarpeted in less time than some people wait to get a haircut, because some new wealthy person has taken an interest in it. The whole floor is like that, except where there are pockets of plain beige hospital nastiness here and there, places that have escaped the attentions of the rich. The nicest rooms are those that were once occupied by a privileged child with a fatal syndrome.
To further emphasize the impossibility of meaningful, mutual connection, Adrian transplants names and places from one story to another, but the stories are not interconnected or even about the same people. A Cindy in one story suffers from an abdominal disorder; in another, she loses her father to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. One Carl suffers from severe schizophrenia and one from severe drug addiction. Several characters live in or near a place called Severna Forest.
Fiction and nonfiction written by doctors frequently portrays just how mortal are those bodies in the white coats; their feet, enclosed in comfy clogs, are made of clay. Adrian?s physicians are no exception. They inadvertently kill patients or run crying from examining rooms. Their gifts fail them. The narrator of the masterful title story describes his chosen profession thusly: “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.” Forced to return home to help his dying father, he spends his days getting high on his father?s pain medication, each hit changing his guilty feelings, which manifest as an ugly angel, into something beautiful. He cannot live up to his self-inflicted God complex.
As a writer, Adrian subscribes to Schopenhauer?s view that the arts might serve as a balm to ameliorate the great, bottomless suffering that so epitomizes our existence. Only one of his characters holds a similar view, a teenage girl writing something she calls “a child?s book of sickness and death.” It features animals dying from such ailments as “atrocious pancreas oh!” and “crispy long surprise.” She herself suffers from what is colloquially known as “short gut,” a bowel disorder that leads to chronic malnutrition. Her animal characters cannot make friends or attract mates; they can only suffer. She tries to coax a young, gay intern into falling for her by bringing him to her bedside with fake complaints and keeping him there with cookies and juice she has saved from snack time. Death provides no solace to her creatures, since she as the writer cannot decide whether it brings relief from or a continuation of life?s problems.
Adrian cannot really decide, either, since such a conclusion requires evidence currently beyond his grasp. Like a doctor forced to give a patient difficult news, he presents the facts practically and deliberately, yet occasionally acknowledges the possibility of a sliver of hope. As his sick teenager writes, “Everybody poops. Everybody suffers. Everybody dies.” Eventually we will understand such lessons intimately; Adrian wants us to acknowledge them more quickly. What we do after that is up to us.