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“Suffer, Monkey, Suffer!”

By (January 1, 2009) No Comment

A Better Angel

By Chris Adrian
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008

We normally think of angels as emissaries from God, incandescent beings that might be mistaken for aliens, or sentimental covers on Hallmark cards. They’re perceived as the good guys, indicated by their everpresent accessory of the halo, practically a synonym for saintliness. But Chris Adrian intends to change that.

Adrian’s angels squabble and destroy, whine and prophesy. They lack civility and frequently chastise. Although the usual adversaries of angels never appear in Adrian’s books, the deeds of some of these angels tip them into the category of the demonic. In Adrian’s first novel Gob’s Grief, set during the American Civil War, an angel haunts a character trying to build a machine to defeat death, harping that his efforts are an “abomination.” Adrian’s subsequent novel The Children’s Hospital offers an taxonomy of four roles: The Preserving Angel floating the hospital upon the waters of the worldwide flood, The Recording Angel penning the tale in the first person, The Accusing Angel doling out guilt to the surviving doctors and sick children, and The Destroying Angel (you can guess). Since angels have featured so prominently in Adrian’s last two books, it seems proper that they would make it into the title of his third, A Better Angel.  

But A Better Angel isn’t exactly a new development on the themes of Adrian’s novels. Its nine stories were published over a decade, between 1997 and 2007, a time period that encompasses Gob’s Grief (2000) and The Children’s Hospital (2006). These stories originated alongside the novels and don’t break from them as much as suture new narratives together with familiar themes. All three books have strong commonalities: as well as the aforementioned angels, there’s an overlapping cast of characters (Dr. Snood, Pickie Beecher, Calvin, and Dr. Siri Chandra—an anagram of Chris Adrian), despair over dead brothers (often twin brothers), and a hospital’s worth of medical argot delivered with surgical snappiness (“Tell me the three classic findings on X-ray in necrotizing enterocolitis.”). If this seems rooted in autobiography, that’s because it is: Adrian has been a divinity student and pediatrician, and his brother died in a car accident in 1993.

In the title story of A Better Angel, a pediatrician named Carl—hooked on heroin, liquid morphine, Ativan, and substances in foil packages—is bullied by his three pregnant sisters into caring for his dying father. Carl’s personal angel, who has accompanied him from a young age, tells him that he can fulfill his destiny by healing his father, but Carl doesn’t have the slightest idea how. The story spotlights his lofty potential—since his angel constantly refers to the extraordinary goals he could have accomplished—and the drug and sexual addiction into which he’s slumped.

This slumped state is characteristic of many of Adrian’s doctors, who are usually incompetent or drug-addled, and whose cynical perspectives upend the truism that doctors go into medicine to help humanity. The angel in this story is quite eccentric: she dons dead cats as footwear, makes her wings into a video mosaic with each tesserae a screen, and predicts the hour of patients’ demise by sniffing them. She is both dependent on and independent of Carl. When Carl takes hits of mood-enhancing drugs, she switches from a stinky bag lady in tissue box shoes to wearing a lovely blue sari and smelling of cookies and fresh grass. However, his consciousness doesn’t always dictate her being: “Sometimes her form obliged my fancy, though I knew I could not control it.”

The frequent appearance of unorthodox angels in Adrian’s work is matched only by that of hospitals, doctors, and sick children. A Better Angel skips between children who catch folksy diseases like the pearly botch or oak gall to those with more nuanced, psychological issues such as inadvertently channeling the dead to those suffering from genetic screw-ups such as short guts or flipper-hands. In one harrowing scene that serves as a microcosm of Adrian’s world of suffering, a doctor in “The Sum of our Parts” lances a baby’s foot and, as the baby screams, squeezes the heel with all her strength to force blood out drop by drop:

Olivia, full of regret, unwrapped a lancet from its sterile foil package and drove it into the fleshiest part of the baby’s heel.

“Sorry, darling,” she said. The baby, who did not yet have a name but would one day be called Sylvia, did not immediately begin to scream. First a look of perfect incredulity passed over her small face. Only when that had been replaced with an expression of outrage did she begin to scream with such force and volume that Beatrice thought it would blow Olivia’s hair back like a hot wind….

Olivia had caught the heel in the well between her thumb and forefinger, and now she began to squeeze with the full force of her hand. Sometimes Olivia thought she heard the heel bone making crunching noises under the pressure, but Bonnie had assured her that it was all in her head, and that it was quite impossible to crush a baby’s heel because the bones were so fresh and green.

  In “A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death” (a more fitting but less marketable title for this collection), Cindy, the adolescent narrator, lives in a hospital ward of chronically ill children. She develops a crush on a gay doctor, Dr. Chandra, and tries to earn his attention, hoping it will turn to affection. The story is packed with painful sounding terms like pseudomonas and agenesis of the eyeballs. Interspersed are italicized sections of the eponymous book of sickness and death, written by Cindy as a contribution to the hospital literary magazine, in which Cindy afflicts animals with terrible imaginary diseases: “See the cat? The cat has leukemic indecisiveness. He is losing his fur, and his cheeks are hurting him terribly, and he bleeds from out of his nose and his ears.” Every section ends with “Suffer, [animal], suffer!”

Through stories like this, Adrian examines the mystery of suffering by focusing on the most heart-wrenching example—the suffering of children. This represents the darkest heart of suffering, which is why Dostoevsky’s Ivan, in The Brothers Karamazov, asks Alyosha whether he would consent to a paradise founded upon the pain of a single tiny child. By gathering together so many suffering children Adrian runs the risk of mawkishness, but through careful navigation he manages to accomplish the difficult task of describing chronically ill children in a non-sentimental manner. Adrian’s primary purpose never seems to make the reader pity the children, but only to offer the children’s suffering as a cathartic experience from which readers can process their own suffering. At the very least, the reader can be very thankful not to have agenesis of the eyeballs.

By syncretizing the visceral, medicine-requiring body with the metaphysical realm of angels and visions, Adrian is a model anti-Gnostic. While Gnosticism tries to erase all physical bodies in favor of the higher plane of the spirit, Adrian insists on making his characters’ bodies into millstones about their necks, as they require liver transplants or succumb to the yellow flux and early dropsy. In the valleys of their illnesses, he roots them to the basic elements of feces and blood, often using the vengeful spreading of bodily fluids as bracing reminders of corporeality. In one of the more harrowing scenes in The Children’s Hospital, a boy named Pickie Beecher pulls his butt cheeks apart to emit a volcanic explosion over the faces of a team of physicians, and in “Sum of Our Parts,” a doctor splashes a vial of blood on the necks of two strangers. Yet these events appear next to conversations with personal angels. The metaphysical aspects are less like magical realism and more like a traditionally Christian paradigm of physical and spiritual worlds. Or, phrased differently, it’s the miracle of the supernatural intruding upon the natural. The miraculous just happens to occur frequently, and in entertaining fashion. The result is a smartly balanced affirmation of both the value and goodness of the body as well as the reality and nobility of the spirit.

Amid all the theology and medicine, Adrian, surprisingly, targets 9/11. A Better Angel showcases a trinity of 9/11 stories published in 2007—“The Changeling,” “Why Antichrist?” and “The Vision of Peter Damien.” In all three, children become possessed. In the folksy “The Vision,” children with misdiagnosed illnesses turn out to be possessed by the spirit of the Twin Towers and angel-bright planes and suicide jumpers. “The Changeling” chronicles a nine-year-old boy’s possession that doesn’t evoke The Exorcist so much as the man inhabited by a legion of demons in the Gospel of Luke. The demons (or entities, as Adrian calls them) number precisely 2,998 and speak out of the boy’s mouth in plural first person: “We are the dead. Where is our blood sacrifice? What have you done for us today?” In “Why Antichrist?,” as a boy struggles to relate to a girl who lost her father in the towers, an Ouija board identifies him as the antichrist. The possessions are creepier because they don’t slouch into the sensationalism of genre-style possessions, with demonic superpowers or shock-value blasphemies.

In many stories about 9/11, the political element is too blatant. Yet here, the method of delivering political ideas is so unorthodox it evades heavy-handedness. For instance, “The Changeling” demonstrates the political foolhardiness of reacting to 9/11 by demanding blood sacrifices. There is special irony that a possessed child delivers lines mirroring the brash, out-for-scalps, swashbuckling foreign policy after 9/11: “Every promise is broken . . . but we must take up the broken promises and bind them whole again with blood.” In contrast to the child’s reaction to 9/11, his father adopts what might be viewed as the more liberal response: He checks himself for signs of guilt and wonders about his own responsibility. This guilt is deployed in the story by a neat exchange: to jolt his son out of a state of possession, the father has to injure himself. So he does so repeatedly, by burns and bumps and cuts, paying not only for the memory of those lost but in apology for the state of his son. Every time his body atones for his sins, his son Carl reverts to his normal self:

“Goddamn it all,” says Carl. “Goddamn your faithlessness and your short memory and your tiny selfish heart and your…ah!” I interrupt the tirade by slamming my finger in the drawer of his nightstand. I watch his face as I do it: It opens up and becomes a child’s face again, even before it becomes particularly his own face again. There is awe and delight written upon it, and then it falls into an expression of sadness and confusion and Carl starts to cry in the ordinary sobbing of a nine-year-old, without any keening choir overtones or screeching old-lady echoes.

The father’s flagellation is reminiscent of Frederic Beigbeder’s “Windows on the World,” in which the main character, suffering after 9/11, writes a forty-item list of self-accusation. But Adrian’s handling of the event differs significantly from most other 9/11 fiction. For one, it’s a short story rather than a novel, which is difficult because of space constraints (although Deborah Eisenberg castigated upper-crust passivity post-9/11 in her wonderful short story, “Twilight of the Superheroes”). He also chooses to set his stories outside New York, in the rural and suburban margins of the country, which focuses the attention away from the physical disaster and more on the larger spiritual and psychological fallout. But given that 9/11 has been so thoroughly written about and discussed, Adrian’s greatest success with these stories is to take such a unique angle that it forces readers to address questions we are naturally inclined—because of our overexposure to 9/11—to resist. To what degree do we bear responsibility? What penances will we perform to assuage the lingering remorse? How does such an occurrence haunt us?

Of course, since this is Adrian, religion comes into play. His characters pray the paternoster to relieve the sickness of 9/11; or they learn they are the antichrist, son of the devil; or their language invokes religious terms: “We are here because your faithlessness called us to you, and we will stay until you remedy it with sincerity and sacrifice.” But Adrian’s most significant religious influence survives less in explicit doctrines and more in a grand perspective: suffering in these stories is teleological; it is a means to an end. His characters try to make sense of their pain, but still believe that their pain is not senseless and can lead them to greater self-knowledge. In “The Vision,” the doctor reminds the vision-seeing Peter,

God bless us all…when we are subjected to trials, and sickness is always a trial. But what’s a trial but a test, and how else do we become perfect except through examination, and what’s perfection except the accumulation of mastered adversity?

So despite the agony of children, the tragedy of 9/11, and innumerable painful medical procedures, these stories, taken as a whole, sound a guardedly hopeful note that suffering may channel redemption.

Part of the strength of these 9/11-inspired stories and others written later in A Better Angel is the increased artfulness and subtlety of Adrian’s language. Much of his early work is weighed down by heavy-baggage terms like “soul,” “spirit,” and “possession.” But in “The Sum of Our Parts,” a soul is described more allusively as “That part of her which was not her broken body stood by her bed in the surgical intensive care unit.” By avoiding the word “soul” Adrian sidesteps all the normal associations of such a word, and forces the reader to accept Adrian’s more creative vision of how we exist after death. Likewise, the supernatural elements of these stories are integrated more confidently than those in, say, Gob’s Grief, which is sometimes preoccupied by explaining its oddities. Why can Jemma suddenly shoot green healing lightning from her fingertips? Why does a hospital float? Why do 2,998 entities take up residence in a young boy? These phenomena aren’t explained as much as assumed, and the stories forge onward. Which is for the best. If Adrian stopped to explain, we’d lose the power of the premise itself, which is best explained by no explanation at all. And for a writer of this caliber, it’s quite enjoyable to sit back and read the stories without needing any more than what he’s already given.

John Matthew Fox is a writer living in Los Angeles. He blogs about novels and short stories at BookFox.