A modern retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Chris Adrian’s new novel The Great Night explores love and death at an evening feast in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park.
Chris Adrian’s latest novel is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and like the original, it is a sublime, unforgettable clusterfuck. It’s San Francisco, 2008, and Titania and her faerie court are preparing a midsummer feast in Buena Vista Park. When mortals stumble into her moonlit realm, madness ensues, and come morning, no one will be the same again.
Novelizing one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed plays is an audacious project, but Adrian’s entire body of work is dreamed up in that milky space between the real and the fantastic. His first novel Gob’s Grief gave us Walt Whitman constructing a time machine to resurrect the Civil War dead. His second novel The Children’s Hospital was an 800-page fable about a pediatric ark floating in the wake of a worldwide flood. For a sampler platter of Adrian’s hyperactive imagination, look no further than A Better Angel, a collection of eclectic stories written over nine years during which Adrian somehow finished medical school, enrolled in Harvard Divinity School, and won a Guggenheim. Not a bad decade for a writer young enough to be named one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40.
Yes, there is a mysterious link between medicine and writing, and I’ll leave that discussion to the comments section below. Suffice to say that Adrian’s day job as a pediatric oncologist goes a long way toward explaining his intimate acquaintance with loss, suffering and grief. The Great Night has comedic moments high and low, but Adrian’s faerie kingdom is stained with death, and all the more intriguing for it. Like any good retelling, this story is best defined by the ways it deviates from the classic.
Eschewing the neat parallelism of Shakespeare’s two mortal couples, Adrian sends a threesome into the woods: Henry, a gay pediatrician, traumatized by a childhood abduction; Will, an arborist and aspiring novelist, dumped by his wife; and Molly, a florist from a fundamentalist Christian family, shaken by the suicide of her boyfriend. Death has even touched the immortal Titania and Oberon, who are mourning the loss of their mortal Boy. Overcome by grief, the Titania has exiled her king, and when she releases Puck from his chains to find him, the night takes a chaotic turn.
Adrian satisfyingly reinvents the impish Puck as a sinister shape shifter, hell-bent on killing. “To some of the faeries he looked like a naked boy with a luxurious Afro, and only the height of the boy or the width of the Afro changed from eye to eye.” Less Robin Goodfellow and more Hobgoblin, this Puck reveals himself in the image of one’s worst fear, a “Beast,” chasing faeries and mortals about the hill, conjuring memories of their vanished loved ones.
At times the action is at once hilarious and freaky, a splendid maze that ultimately reveals character. In one scene, Will flees into a chamber crawling with “a waving sea of thick flesh-colored anemones, until they got close enough—a sea of disembodied penises, softly shambling toward him on variously sized testicle feet…” Afraid that his wife won’t believe this crazy night, Will reaches to put a penis in his pocket to prove the validity of his story, only to be interrupted by “…a swarming flock of vaginas that flew all around his head, biting him toothlessly on his ears and his cheeks and his neck.”
As the night goes on, shit gets crazy—perhaps a little too crazy at times. The milieu might prove wearisome for some readers, such as this inventory of four fairies, described in the span of a couple paragraphs as 1.) “a chair” 2.) “a very large bee with the head of a Vietnamese lady” 3.) “a round bubble of fur” and 4.) “a tall one, who looked like a librarian made out of leather.” Adrian occasionally aims for the uncanny and misses his mark, peppering the woods with images so random that they fail to leave a strong impression.
As if to balance the wild forest with thoroughly grounded realism, the narrative is laced with ample backstory for Henry, Will, and Molly. While beautifully written, many of these scenes felt like ways of explaining what need not be explained. By whisking us relentlessly into backstory, Night offers piles of evidence in favor of Nurture (“Henry had a complicated relationship with his mother, who was a complicated individual.”) but for all the charm and zaniness of the mortals, more of their character could have been revealed in the present, in the woods.
Perhaps that’s why the novel’s most memorable characters are those without extended backstory. Enter the players, led by a surly homeless man named Huff who is convinced that the San Francisco city government is up to no good, and determined to stage a production of Soylent Green that will “move the Mayor to vulnerable, regret-stricken tears.” Much like Bottom’s production of Pyramus and Thisbe, Huff’s heartfelt efforts go beyond comic relief. His fleeting affair with spellbound Titania offers some of the most beautiful moments in the book, including transcendent passages of their “marvelous fucking” between rehearsals, climaxing in an orgasm that, believe me, you will not soon forget.
Here is the magic of Shakespeare’s play and Adrian’s Night: mortals wondering about the Gods, Gods wondering about the mortals, myth and reality co-mingling. The results can be stunningly painful—such as when Titania and Oberon watch helplessly as their Boy wilts away in the local children’s hospital: “Oberon had voiced a fear that the boy was sick for human things, that the cancer in his blood was only a symptom of a great ill, that he was homesick unto death. So she imagined they were putting into him a sort of liquid mortal sadness, a corrective against a dangerous abundance of faerie joy.”
In conversing with Shakespeare, Adrian has written a love song to San Francisco, and a meditation on two of life’s most difficult subjects—love and death. The Great Night is proof that passion and pain are two sides of the same slippery coin. As one character delivers in an elegant syllogism: “Everybody deserves to be happy. Everybody needs to be in love to be happy. Therefore, everybody deserves to be in love.” If only life could be so neat. Adrian shows us that the price of loving anyone is knowing that someday they’ll be gone.
Photo of Chris Adrian by Gus Eliot