The writer Chris Adrian is a medical doctor, a pediatric oncologist, who seems to have known from the beginning that our bodies are not the problem. I think of Beatrice, an attempted suicide, “the jumping lady,” in “The Sum of Our Parts,” one of ten stories in Adrian’s shimmering, glow-in-the-dark collection A Better Angel. Beatrice is comatose, being readied for a liver transplant. But “that part of her which was not her broken body” doesn’t want to live. Her spirit lifts off, finally, “in search of a place without loneliness and desire; without misery and rage, without disappointment; without crushing and impenetrable sadness.”
In Chris Adrian‘s world, the people who jumped out of the twin towers on 9.11 are still falling, some in the strangest of places. In “The Vision of Peter Damien,” for example, they are raining down on a medieval Ohio farm town which may also stand for Iraq. It’s a world where, as he says, “dead people don’t go away.” Out of his own experience and his own obsessions, Chris Adrian’s stories embrace the natural and the supernatural, articulate souls as well as hurting minds and bodies. It was his writing teacher at Iowa, Marilynne Robinson, who turned him toward theology, toward the unexpected pleasure of reading John Calvin, and then to Divinity School at Harvard.
Our long conversation here fortifies the hope that bad times make good books, and that Chris Adrian is as good as they get at making metaphors of this very strange moment. In one of his most widely read stories, “The Changeling,” which ran in Esquire with the title “Promise Breaker”, a single father hacks off his own hand with an ax to address the psychosis of his son Carl, who has taken on himself the pain of the 9.11 dead. “Is it enough?” the father asks. “And I think I mean is it enough to prove to them I love my son, or that I deserve to have him back, that I mean it when I say I promise to take better care of him, that I promise to be a better father, to unroot whatever fault in me threw him into the company of these angry souls who died to make us all citizens of the world…” In Chris Adrian’s cosmos of irremediable pain, father and son can both be seen meeting agony with love. “I am still a fan of happy endings,” as Chris Adrian said to me in conversation. “It was meant to be a happy ending.”
CA: I tend to write about whatever is troubling me most deeply at the moment. That used to mean writing about death, my brother’s death specifically. He died when I was 22, he was 25. A lot of what is in the first two novels has to do with that. But as I got older and became more removed from his death, in time at least, my capacity to be troubled by things that were not quite so personal opened up. And as I started to notice what a sorry state the world was in, and particularly America was in, it started to intrude into fiction in areas that used to be more personal or more private.
CL: It seems so brave to introduce not just angels, which are almost cliché, but a spirit reality that’s in endless conversation with us, with individuals but even with countries. Where does that conviction come from?
CA: I guess it’s a notion that I have demonstrated to myself in my own obsessions and the way that I have engaged in troubling things over the years, that has proven to me that dead people don’t go away after they’re dead. I think that is true for individuals that lose them, and for communities, and for countries and for the world at large. That is something I explored in a relatively ham-handed though satisfying personally way in that the first novel I ever got published [Gob’s Grief] which was about the civil war but more particularly about a man who loses his brother in the civil war and spends the next ten years trying to build a machine that will bring his brother back to life but also bring back all of the other soldiers who died in the civil war with the idea that the whole world would be transformed if death were abolished.
CL: The godfather of doctor-writers, [Anton] Chekhov, once said, “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other.” Throw in pastoral ministering in your life… how do these things relate to each other?
CA: They all, especially the medicine and the writing, because I have been at that longer than the divinity stuff, certainly seem to inform each other. I don’t think that I could do one without the other; I would be a worse writer and a worse physician if I weren’t a writer and a physician both. The things I am privileged to see in my work as a physician drive my work even when it is not about a hospital… I don’t want to say I imagine my patients’ lives, but I think that the habit of trying to imagine the world from someone else’s perspective even if that person is just an imaginary construct you’re using in the course of your work as an artist, makes it easier to make room for how big people are in real life. It helps you to remember to keep in mind that there is a lot more to the world or the person sitting across from you than what is in that little room.
Chris Adrian in conversation with Chris Lydon, November 11, 2008.