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A Better Angel by Chris Adrian

I have now written and deleted this review three times, which makes me a little nervous, as I start again, about my ability to adequately talk about this book. This sometimes happens when I read a book that affects me so deeply--I become incapable of expressing how I feel about it, how it made me feel and what it gave me. But maybe this time it will happen.

It has been a few years now since I've read The Children's Hospital, Adrian's 2006 novel about an apocalyptic flood that buries most of the earth under seven miles of water, sparing only a newly built hospital full of sick children, their parents, and a handful of doctors. The hospital is attended by four angels--the recording angel (who is creating scripture for a new world), the preserving angel (who keeps the hospital afloat, provides for its inhabitants, and comforts them--or tries to, although she is frequently rebuffed for being too annoying), the accusing angel (who serves up guilt like Thanksgiving turkey), and the destroying angel (who does its job).

As I read A Better Angel, I kept noticing small elements of The Children's Hospital, which utterly blew me away when I read it, although I'm much too dumb to appreciate it fully in all its dimensions. Characters quietly recurred, familiar themes began to emerge. In one previous iteration of this review, I tried to catalog all of these things as best I could (you're welcome for sparing you that, by the way--it was for my benefit rather than anyone else's), and setting them all down like that made me wonder how many things I was missing. I've started reading The Children's Hospital again, so it's possible I'll soon know.

Adrian, a pediatrician and former Harvard Divinity School student, is preoccupied by death and suffering, and his fiction often represents the collision of the physical and spiritual worlds. In real life, we all know people who turn away from metaphysical questions, choosing to proclaim themselves "not religious"--perhaps you are a person like that, dear reader--but in Adrian's work, no one escapes the eye of God or the influence of angels. Angels in The Children's Hospital and A Better Angel are often terrifying, capable of truly awful things, beings who have witness and absorbed the world's darkness. But they're not false angels or demons--they are simply fearsome because they are so ancient, representations of a particular wisdom that we struggle as hard as possible to forget: that we are capable of miracles, great leaps of positive creativity, but that most of us just give in to the incessant whirlpool of entropy or, perhaps, destruction.

Which is worse? Entropy, of course. To deny one's true nature--I say that instead of "destiny", which gives the impression that we are "meant" to do something rather than built to do something, which is entirely different--is to deny God. In the title story, a pediatrician named Carl watches his father die, while his personal angel, who has been visible to him since childhood, tries to nag, cajole, even scare him into saving the old man. Carl is a miserable man; he cheated and bribed his way through medical school and uses a steady stream of morphine, Ativan, and anything else he can get his hands on to get himself through the day. The story is superb and heartbreaking. Instead of raising a hand to save his father, Carl opts to broker both of their comforts with painkillers, and goes to the trouble of mocking up a thunderstorm when his father mentions wishing to experience one again before dying. In the end, Carl's father breathes his last, and though Carl knows he has failed the angel, she does not leave him.

"A Better Angel" is the greatest story in the collection, but it is not the only very good one. In "The Sum of Our Parts", a woman who attempted suicide by jumping off a seven story parking garage lies in a coma, awaiting organ transplant, while her noncorporeal self wanders around the hospital, spying on the lives and minds of phlebotomists and lab technicians while she roots for her body's demise. When it finally occurs, when her heart is harvested from her chest, she leaps into the arms of death with pure ecstasy, crying out "Finished!" as she disappears "in search of a place without loneliness and desire; without misery and rage, without disappointment; without crushing, impenetrable sadness."

In "The Changeling", one of three separate stories that offer up perspectives on 9/11, a nine-year-old boy (also named Carl) is possessed by the spirits of those who died in the Twin Towers, spirits who cry out for revenge, blood sacrifice, justice. Carl's despairing father, terrified for his son and desperate to restore him, self-inflicts injury upon injury to appease "the entity." The story is rife with sorrow, the agony of a man who punishes himself to resurrect his psychologically buried son. The father is tender and loving and willing to do anything, which he proves at the end of the story--although whether or not it brings Carl back permanently is left up in the air.

What's refreshing about Adrian is that he doesn't moralize. His work is like exploratory surgery, opening up the body and soul at once and poking around, staring unflinchingly at corruption and horror. But it's not all fun and games. Some stories bring a message of guarded hopefulness--Beatrice's joy at finally being able to move on to a higher plane, the faithfulness of Carl's angel despite disappointment and loss--and some a strange foreboding. The future Adrian envisions for us is a mixed bag of good and evil, of destruction and recreation, not unlike the end of The Children's Hospital. But certainty is for zealots; most of us move through our lives in a constant state of metaphysical flux, one moment believing in the goodness of people, in a benevolent universe, the next despairing at the state of our broken world. In his books, Adrian asks that we look it all in the face and make of it what we will.

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