My name is Caleb Michael Sarvis. I’m a writer, a thinker, and currently a self-reflective incubator. Welcome to a blog series in which I’ll be analyzing both the practical and interesting ways imaginary characters can play in fiction, including The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, 2014’s Best Picture Winner Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and other short fiction.
Stories by Chris Adrian
In his story “A Better Angel,” Chris Adrian creates a world in which a guardian angel is something more of a self-righteous partner. The narrator, Carl, is an impaired (as in swiping morphine, Percocet and Ativan when he can) pediatrician that’s left to deal with his dying father because his three older sisters are pregnant at the same time and aren’t doctors like him. Nor do they have guardian angels like Carl. He’s had his since he was six, and now that he has to face and care for his dying father, someone he has little to no relationship with, his angel is pushing him towards resolution. When Carl resists going to see his father, the angel is quick to judge,
“The angel was still shaking her head at me. She was dressed to shock, with a plastic shopping bag on her head, in a filthy housedress, and with a dead cat wrapped around either foot.
“I barely know him!” I shouted at her, and she didn’t respond. And I told her I had a patient waiting, which she already knew because there is nothing that she doesn’t know, and nothing I’ve ever been able to hide from her,” (Adrian 113).
Carl is incapable of hiding anything because she’s an extension of him. The writer has left clues that suggest the angel is entirely her own character. She knows things that appear to be out of his realm of knowledge. Her means of dress, while unconventional, don’t seem to come from Carl’s own thoughts. He mentions, “sometimes her form obliged my fancy, though I knew I could not control it, having already tried to make her take on the shape of a dog or an ear of corn by staring and concentrating a the until she said to stop it,” (Adrian 119). Throughout the story, Carl tries to change his angel, make her “better” in his opinion, but the only thing that works are the drugs. This is because the angel is Carl’s conscience. He doesn’t want to help his father, but he knows it’s the right thing to do. She’s grotesque and tenacious, but that’s because Carl is hardly ever living up to his potential. His decision to do drugs regularly, to escape from reality, stems from his unwillingness to accept a defined reality. He wants to change what it means to do the right thing, thus changing the angel all together. When Carl first reaches his father, he’s unable to stay,
“Now he was laid out diapered in a dirty bed, as bald and toothless and somehow as grand as Aslan on his table. He looked up at me when I walked in and said, by way of greeting, “You!” and managed to invest the word with equal measures of disappointment, accusation, and surprise. I dropped my book and candy box and ran out,” (Adrian 117).
Carl hides throughout the story, afraid of sticking around too long to see the end. The writer uses the imaginary character, the guardian angel, as a means of giving life to Carl’s guilt. This decision, as in the previous examples, works as a seamless means of exploring character. Desire drives story, though what a character wants isn’t always best for them. The guardian angel, in some way, does know what’s best for Carl and this knowledge paints the angel as concrete symbol of Carl’s interior conflict. This sort of tension gives life to scenes that would otherwise fall flat, such as when Carl runs away and ends up in a bathroom,
“A locked door or a feeling of really needing to be alone is no deterrent to the angel. She was there in just a few moments – I never know what delays her, when she can travel at the speed of guilt and sometimes seem to be everywhere at once. She berated me while I hid my face in my hands, her voice making the little room seem very full, all the what do you think you’re doing’sand you get back there’sseeming to bounce off the white walls in discrete packages of sound,” (Adrian 117).
Adrian’s choice here to use “guilt” as a qualifier for speed really captures the essence of the imaginary character. Had Carl been alone, face in his hands, perhaps sobbing, that would’ve been far less interesting and even melodramatic, but the presence of the guardian angel gives it a bit more life. The angel is omnipresent, not because she’s of a higher existence, but rather because she is that physical representation of guilt, the subconscious. Allowing the reader to experience the protagonist’s own emotions in such a concrete way gives the reader a better understanding of the weight of the moment. The story turns all the more compelling and worth telling. It’s because of this omnipresent, very real conscience, that Carl turns to drugs. A natural source of tension, the guardian angel is someone he wishes to eliminate, or at least manipulate, to give him what he wants, rather than what he needs,
“[The nurse] had placed bottles in my hand – I hadn’t even had any yet and already I could feel a lovely warmth coming out of them, and they seemed to catch the afternoon light in a very special way. Janie set her feet and three out two quick punches. “A one-two against the pain,” she said. “One-two! Give it a try.” With a bottle in either hand I gave it a try, and yes, my fists seemed to have a certain heft to them. I threw a punch at the angel and she actually ducked away,” (Adrian 128).
The angel fears the drugs, because they warp the subconscious. While an imaginary character, she’s a representation of very real thoughts. When Carl is high, the angel changes, and it proves to be his only means of warping her, his metaphorical judgment,
“I made free with the drugs, and made a lot of trips back and forth to the pharmacy, and imagined the little man in the back filling the bottles from two big coolers of bright, pure drug, and dreamed of following him back to put my mouth to the spigots, because I was sure that if I could just take enough, then the angel would be permanently transformed, and if it happened also to be enough to kill me, then all right,” (Adrian 128).
Carl knows the angel is right. He could have helped his dad sooner, had their relationship been better. He should be taking responsible for his actions. This is why he wants to permanently change her, he wants to permanently change the way he feels. He can’t, and ends up admitting to his father that he wants a better angel (132). He knows, and the reader knows, that he simply wishes to be a better person. By giving the protagonist a character to wish harm against, Chris Adrian has given dimension to an internal struggle. Like in Birdman, the imaginary character allows the writer a mechanism with which to explore the human condition even further than had they not chosen to include one. As a real representation of a character’s interior struggle, the imaginary character pushes the character towards what they really need and thus their resolution.
Adrian, Chris. “A Better Angel”. A Better Angel. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Girroux.