Sardonic and sad. Those words describe Chris Adrian’s tone in the short story collection A Better Angel. I finished reading the collection this week. Adrian is a doctor in real life, so it should not surprise readers that his writing is replete with scenes set in pediatric units, emergency rooms, hospitals, operating rooms, and on and on. And there is a motley crew of maladies, too–physical, psychological, existential, and spiritual. Especially spiritual.
Adrian writes with a keen eye for what’s wrong with the world (read: people, our systems, our relationships, our governments, etc. are all broken, flawed, fallen, and in need of redemption).
From the short story “A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death” in the A Better Angel collection, here is a sample:
It’s not safe to confide in people here. Even when they aren’t prying—and they do pry—it’s better to be silent or to lie than to confide. They’ll ask you when you had your first period, or your first sex, if you are happy at home, what drugs you’ve done, if you wish you were thinner and prettier, or that your hair was shiny. And you may tell them about your terrible cramps, or your distressing habit of having compulsive sex with homeless men and women in Golden Gate Park, or how you can’t help but sniff a little bleach every morning when you wake up, or complain that you are fat and your hair always looks as if it had just been rinsed with drool. And they’ll say, I’ll help you with that bleach habit that has debilitated you separately but equally from your physical illness, that dreadful habit that’s keeping you from becoming more perfectly who you are. (187)
The speaker here is a girl hospitalized and separated from the “healthy” people. In her imagination, which is where she and the other kids in this story live their “real lives” due to the sicknesses keeping them from “normal” people, she and the other patients think, according to Adrian’s characterizations, in these terms.
They have to think and express themselves in crass and tragic ways, Adrian’s tone suggests, because their lives are so sad. They are freaks; they are isolated from most of the world; they are like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, alienated and invisible. The world is a horror show.
Adrian excels in forcing readers to see uncomfortable truths. He seems to want us readers to grapple with the ugliness and sin in life. His medium for doing this? Parade sickness and depravity throughout each story. Make the ugly sympathetic. See how we react.
I was initially shocked at some of the scenes I read, at least at first. Then I got used to them. And I think that is part of what Adrian is driving at. His view may be that we become coarsened to depravity, to the sinful, to the vile, but we learn to ignore it, to live with it, and become comfortably numb. The problem with that? Nothing changes for the better. We resign ourselves and say, That’s just the way things are.
Adrian is a fine writer, very fine. I am reading through his other works now, because I want to see if this worldview is in his other fiction. My hope is that he is open to the possibility of redemption. It does not make sense to complain of the ugly and depraved in life and at the same time exclude the alternatives. Does not the ugly imply the beautiful? Does not the depraved imply the sublime, the exalted, the divine? And what if this universe is not a closed system? And what if people, though fallen and sinful, are fearfully and wonderfully made, but rebelling against their author and means of redemption? These are questions I hope Adrian’s other fiction addresses.