Monday, March 27, 2006

Not that kind of angel

This week's New Yorker fiction is "A Better Angel," by Chris Adrian. Adrian is the author of Gob's Grief, referred to everywhere as "a masterpiece of restrospective mythology." As of 2001, when the novel was published, he was also a medical student.

This story is about a drug-addicted young doctor (the narrator) who has his own personal angel. The angel first appears when the narrator is a boy, just before he is attacked by a swarm of yellow jackets, and then again in the hospital, where he is getting his first in a long line of fixes, a Benadryl IV.
But when we were alone, and she stood silently at the foot of my bed, looking strange not just on account of the wings but because she was dressed as a doctor, with a white coat and a stethoscope and her hair done up in a smart bun, I asked her why she hadn’t warned me about the wasps. “I’m not that kind of angel,” she said.
So what kind of angel is she? One who constantly tells him he is destined for greatness and just as constantly berates him for his mistakes. Sounds a lot like a mother; the narrator's mother, coincidentally, is never mentioned in the story. The narrator's sisters are mentioned, however; I'm not sure if they're based on the Gorgons or the Harpies, but there definitely seem to be a few references to Greek myth thrown around.
My sisters were all much older and hated to have me underfoot, so they’d draw fake maps, age them by beating them in the sand with a baseball bat and burning them around the edges, then send me off on quests. I fell for this sort of thing for years.
The story is about one more such quest: their father is hospitalized, and the three daughters, all of whom are pregnant, insist that the narrator go take care of the father. He goes, takes his father home to die, shares his father's morphine, and so on.

Are we readers asked to accept the angel literally? Adrian gives us room to view the angel as the narrator's fantasy, or perhaps a drug-induced delusion.
I spent a lot of time amusing myself that way, making up games, inventing friends to play with, since I really had none of my own....

[The angel] was sitting in a tree, gently tapping an orange that hung near her face, making it swing. My imaginary friends were not the kind you could see. I figured her for a smart-aleck picker’s daughter, since it was nearing the end of the season and the groves were full of Guatemalans. She wore a sleeveless yellow dress with a furry kitten face on the front—I remember that very clearly, and remember wondering later how, if she didn’t exist, I could have made that up.
Doesn't that sound like the tactic of a practiced liar? That introduction of a specific detail as evidence that "I couldn't have made it up!" The angel doesn't appear until the day he experiences the "beautiful thick sleep" of the Benadryl drip, and when the narrator does drugs as an adult physician hiding in the bathroom to escape his duties, the angel morphs from angry to mellow, as if it were the angel having a toot. Does that make sense unless the angel exists only in the narrator's imagination?