To surreal with love

Dr. Chris Adrian makes a round in fantasyland.

ANGEL AT MY OPERATING TABLE Adrian ponders the intersections between medicine and mysticisim.

ANGEL AT MY OPERATING TABLE Adrian ponders the intersections between medicine and mysticisim. Photograph: Gus Elliott

Drug-addled doctors, evil teenagers and winged spirits are among the characters in Chris Adrian’s new volume of eccentric and fabulistic stories, A Better Angel. The author, it turns out, is somewhat unusual himself, though his bio starts normally enough for a 37-year-old writer: He holds an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa and has published two novels, Gob’s Grief (Broadway, 2001) and The Children’s Hospital (McSweeney’s, 2006). From there, his life story, like his fiction, swiftly veers into unexpected territory. He is also a practicing pediatrician, and at the time of our interview is two weeks into a three-year fellowship in pediatric hematology and oncology at a San Francisco hospital. And he’s partway through a degree from the Harvard Divinity School. And he’s working on a novel based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream that’s set in Golden Gate Park. Not surprisingly, the only spare moment he had for an interview was during his morning commute. Even though we got cut off a few times when his train went through tunnels, he was shockingly lucid for six in the morning Pacific Time.

Adrian says that his combined interest in medicine and religion is pragmatic. As an oncologist, he deals with death every day; the divinity studies, he hopes, will help him give patients and their families the most sensitive care possible (“though I won’t be done with all the schooling until I’m 75,” he jokes). But his side career as a fiction writer throws some people off. “Most people think it’s neat if a little weird.”

Exactly. Adrian’s books might concern doctors and theology, but his off-kilter imagination tends to push those topics into increasingly bizarre realms. In The Children’s Hospital, a biblical flood turns the titular facility into a contemporary Noah’s Ark, populated with doctors, nurses and patients who are the sole survivors of the apocalypse. One of the book’s many charms is that even as the hospital floats, the doctors proceed as if it’s business as usual.

A Better Angel, which features some characters who appeared in The Children’s Hospital, continues Adrian’s exploration of fairy-tale-like worlds. “The Sum of Our Parts” begins simply (“Beatrice needed a new liver”), but soon the protagonist’s spirit lifts from her bedridden body and wends its way through the hospital, eavesdropping on nurses and hanging out with the hematology techs matching her blood with potential donors. In “The Changeling,” a father and his adult son make waffles together for the son’s own child, who has developed an illness in which the collective ghost of all the people who died on 9/11 possess his body. Only when the father injures himself in progressively more gory ways does the little boy’s true self temporarily return.

Adrian admits that his work at the hospital often inspires his fiction, but he radically transforms events from his everyday experience, fitting them into a richly surreal framework. The author says that he based “The Vision of Peter Damien” on a young leukemia patient who was trying to understand the reality of his own disease and of the recent World Trade Center attacks; but the story itself is about a 19th-century German-American farm boy, who has feverish hallucinations of “two silver towers burning against a lovely blue sky.”

“I get some kind of obsessive idea in my head and the story works it out so it doesn’t take up all my time and attention,” the writer says. Like their creator, the characters in A Better Angel tend to channel their grim obsessions into transformative creativity: One, a teenager who’s spent much of her life in the hospital, is writing a book about diseased animals. When an incompetent intern asks, “Do you think anyone would buy that?” she answers, “There’s a book about shit.…Why not one about sickness and death?” This could be an epigraph for much of Adrian’s brutal yet beautiful world, where the sometimes horrifying realities of the body mingle with the pleasures of fantasy.

A Better Angel (FSG, $23) is out now.

Buy A Better Angel now on