Imagine my surprise a few days ago, when I opened the mail and discovered a book! I thank Darin S. Keesler from Picador Publishing for thinking of me and sending me this gem of a book.
A Better Angel by Chris Adrian, is admittedly not a book that is up my alley. It is not overtly “religious” or spiritual, although it contains both types of material in its pages. The writer, is both a pediatrician and divinity student, and you can see evidence of both in the stories contained in this collection, yet the themes are broader and more raw.
They touch the human psyche in all their harsh splendor. Life, death, tragedy, coping, grief. There are no flip answers, no solutions, no working out of the meanness of life with comforting remarks. Rather, the reader is shocked often enough, pulling back, and wondering, “how am I reading such ugliness so calmly?”
I make no pretence to being a literary critic. I have had but the barest bones education in literature, and frankly have managed mostly to read the classics. Yet, I can certainly recognize a talent when I see one, and Mr. Adrian is surely talented. His characters are sharp edged, with nary a rounded corner. They work out their pain in ways that frankly are probably closer to the norm than most of us might like to admit.
Each story is eerie and never goes in any direction we might assume. There are numerous references to 9-11, in fact one of the character’s father has died in the twin towers. Another character is constantly bombarded with “falling bodies,” recall of that horrific image that crossed our television screens.
One thing that is fascinating is that many of the stories contain beings, ghosts or visions. And yet not a one of those seeing these visions ever seems to think them strange or odd. There is a matter of fact acceptance of these things as normal, at least to the character. They are never so to us the reader.
I note that others have compared him to Flannery O’Connor and Stephen King. I can’t really comment on how true an analogy that is, but that is not bad company to be in. I can tell you that Chris is a wordsmith and it is delightful, in much the way that King is delightful in his ability to build suspense and drama with perfect phrasing and word choice.
It is not every 9-year old who muses: “Did Satan feel like this when he almost conquered heaven?” That is the type of line that makes you stop and re-evaluate what you are really reading here. You recognize you are in the mind of someone you might like to spend some hours listening to. And lines like that are not unique.
I’m not really a student of the short story. Never have been. I read too fast, perhaps to my detriment, but I’ve always gone for the novel, and big novels at that. But this one truly captivated me. I realized I was in the presence of something rather above my pedestrian tastes.
That Adrian is both doctor and seminarian AND a truly gifted writer probably suggests that I should not have been surprised that these stories would be haunting. They do not satisfy in the sense of closure. One is left empty handed if one is waiting for an end to the pain and suffering of the characters. Excuses are not made for the behaviors. There is no resolution, nor clear end to the suffering. There is simply a shrugging of one’s shoulders and a life goes on kind of facial expression.
I would not suggest you read more than one at a time. They take time to settle, to marinate in the mind. As I said, I found no “answer” no cosmic transcendence achieved. They make you uncomfortable, uneasy, but they also seem in some real way to be close to reality, closer than we might realize.
If you are a student of good literature, then try this for sure. If you like your fiction simple and straight forward, then perhaps not. I found it a book I turned to eagerly each day until I finished. I look forward to reading Mr. Adrian in the future.