Kids Gone Wild

A Better Angel
By Chris Adrian
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pages, $23

Chris Adrian, like Chekhov, is both a physician and a short story writer, and while we need not hold him to Chekhov’ s standard, I think he could learn a little from the master. Neither a humanist nor a postmodern craftsman, the talented Mr. Adrian is gorgeously adrift in a no man’s land.

His stories very often feature precocious "damaged" children who’ve suffered tragedies and are tortured by angels and ghosts or their own extreme behavior. In "Stab," a 10-year-old girl goes around stabbing animals and, eventually, her best friend, a 10-year-old boy, presumably because her parents died in a car accident. "The Vision of Peter Damien" is about children in a whimsically antiquated world who experience feverish visions of 9/11. In "Why Antichrist?" a teenage girl whose father has died in 9/11 sets up the protagonist for a car accident in order to prove he cannot die because he’s the Antichrist and responsible for the attacks (which he is). In "High Speeds" a little boy goes insane after the death of his father; he believes he’s from the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The allegorical 9/11 stories are fantastical and very mannered. The unrealistic maturity of the child protagonists and their maddening bereavement is awkward, at once surreal and (barely) plausible—children can kill, after all, if they’re upset enough. … It’s bizarre and confusing.

I suspect that Mr. Adrian enlists surrealism to negotiate a less emotional approach to his subject matter. Alas, his portraits end up not only unlikely but watered-down and clichéd. If he could manage a more definitive break from the real world, if his metaphors and narrative technique made use of postmodern strategies in the manner of, say, Donald Barthelme, he could accommodate his characters’ manias and their lack of development. But Mr. Adrian remains a realist, and his strongest stories feature everyday situations in which the fantasy is sequestered in the minds of the characters.

"The Sum of Our Parts" and the title story, "A Better Angel," are the best in the collection, and both are in a more traditional minimalist mode, with distant echoes of Chekhov and his many American descendants. In "A Better Angel," the main character, a pediatrician taking care of his dying father, is haunted by an angel whom we cannot define as good or bad and who gives off "an awful stench" when she shakes her wings, that odor quickly replaced with "fresh grass and cookies and new snow on the sidewalk." "The Sum of Our Parts" is narrated from the point of view of the disembodied spirit of a woman who’s thrown herself off a seven-story parking garage; she’s lingering at the hospital where her comatose body awaits a liver transplant.

In these stories Mr. Adrian paints beautiful still lifes of near-dead bodies among ghosts and angels, prompting questions about what lies beneath the body, the wax mannequin, or what lies beyond—beyond the modern scene of death, the dirty, fluorescent hospital. The blood pumping through these mannequins’ veins is cold and chillingly so. We know that there’s something of life beyond the mechanisms of anatomy—what is it?

I wish Chris Adrian could give us more telling clues.

Lily Swistel studies at Yale. She can be reached at books@observer.com.