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The Great Night: A Novel Hardcover – April 26, 2011
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“Magical. . . Adrian. . . uses Shakespeare’s comedy not for a virtuosic display of stylistic mimicry but as a vessel to help him access and contain the amazingly bountiful, sparkling ‘jewels from the deep’ (as the Bard called them) of his rich imagination.”—Heller McAlpin, National Public Radio
“A wild ride—I found [The Great Night] almost viscerally thrilling, especially the experience of moving through [Adrian’s] prose as it crackles and purrs . . . the most brilliant and profound reimagining in Adrian’s vision isn’t the way he magics the humans but the way he humanifies Shakespeare’s fairies . . . Reading The Great Night was an extraordinary experience. When I finished it, I started it over again.”—Alexandra Mullen, The Barnes and Noble Review
“Adrian has demonstrated a vast imagination in his earlier books, particularly The Children’s Hospital, a tale of doctors and patients and angels (yes, angels) in a post-apocalyptic hospital that has become the world’s new ark. He is a fellow in pediatric hematology-oncology and a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, and his work indeed suggests a profound interest in where life meets death and how we make sense of that great undiscovered country . . . The Great Night is no exception . . . Adrian once again left me feeling both meditative and moved.”—Chris Bohjalian, The Boston Globe
“Himself a pediatric oncologist, Adrian has always written with depth and compassion about grief, but I can’t recall anything in his two prior novels or collection of stories that matches that chapters in [The Great Night] describing what it’s like to be a mother experiencing the loss of a child . . . Rather than Pyramus and Thisbe, we’re treated to a musical version of “Soylent Green,” the 1973 dystopian thriller starring Charlton Heston, in which there isn’t enough to eat, and the Soylent Corp. makes its money by secretly turning people into food. The humor is—well—delicious. But it also makes a joyous, life-affirming point, echoing Shakespeare’s own insistence that lovers must eventually return to everyday life in Athens.”—Mike Fischer, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
About the Author
Chris Adrian is the author of Gob’s Grief, The Children’s Hospital, and A Better Angel. Selected by The New Yorker as one of their “20 Under 40,” he lives in San Francisco, where he is a fellow in pediatric hematology-oncology.
Top Customer Reviews
As a literary mash up it's fun - but there are too many times when the book feels like Armistead Maupin meets Lewis Carroll meets Tony Kushner with a smattering of Dickens and Oliver Twist thrown on top. The digressions digress. And the central narrative isn't that interesting. And the all too knowing San Francisco references grate fast (nothing dates faster than knowingness).
Chris Adrian is at his best (as he was in The Children's Hospital) when he sticks most truly to what he knows all too well from real life - the unwonted miseries and love-in-pain that marks out lives that have done nothing to deserve it. But he doesn't do whimsy well and the fantasy sections drag. This might have been a great novella - maybe two - but not a novel.
'The Great Night' is a modernised retelling of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, set in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco in 2008. A group of humans stumble into a disaster implemented by the Faery Queen, Titania, who is in the throes of deep sorrow. Following the death of their latest changeling child, Titania and Oberon had one of their marital spats -- but this time, Oberon doesn't seem to be coming back. Desperate to get the King to show himself and so absorbed with her grief that she loses all sensibility, Titania lifts the controlling enchantment off of Puck, also known as the Beast, freeing him to wreak havoc in the park. (The greater world is protected by walls of air -- nothing, mundane or fantastical, gets in our out of the park while those walls, presumably conjured by Oberon, are up). The mortals trapped within are: Molly, recovering from the suicide of her boyfriend; Will, in love with a strange woman who dumped him a year ago; Henry, who can't remember any of his life before the age of thirteen, and whose obsessive-compulsive habits drove away his boyfriend; and a group of homeless people rehearsing for a musical version of Soylent Green, led by Huff, who believes the Mayor of San Francisco is feeding the indigent population to each other in the soup kitchens. These mortals get wound up in the actions of the faeries, who are either giving over to sensual indulgence in what they presume to be their last hours, or who are seeking ways to put the Beast back under control.
There are things about this book which are really great. It's definitely at its best when the faeries are the main focus. Titania and Oberon are sweeping, dramatic figures, and Adrian describes the lesser faeries in a way that balances nicely between whimsical and grotesque. The flashback section where Titania and Oberon have to watch their changeling child die is the strongest portion of the book. Because their magic cannot work on anything they care for, they have to turn to human medicine to try and save the Boy. They're also struggling to deal with the emotional consequences of actually caring for a mortal child, as their self-absorption usually prevents such deep attachments to their changelings. Adrian does a great job showing how mortals perceive the faeries when they enter the mundane world, how the little magics affect them. He also -- through his own background as a pediatrician -- is able to evoke the tormented feelings of parents watching a child die with great sympathy and precision. The emotionality of this section is strong and compelling, and it paints a very clear picture.
As for the humans, their stories generally start off well enough -- Molly, Will, and Henry, at least, inhabit complex emotional and psychological worlds. Huff and his tribe I could have done without. They seemed extraneous, none of them besides Huff developed any real personality, and I can't figure out the purpose of the Soylent Green trope. Not having enough of a familiarity with that source material, I don't know if there's some larger theme at work there, or if the fixation is just a way to demonstrate the extent of Huff's delusions. Regardless, it seems like that subplot only exists as a tacked-on way to have an analog for the Mechanicals, so that Titania has a fool to dote on when the Beast places her under an enchantment. But the lover-analogs are fascinating, if not wholly likeable. They all enter the story in liminal states, hedging between decisions, scared to take decisive action in controlling their lives, hesitant and varying degrees of pathetic. In this way, they're precisely the opposite of Shakespeare's lovers, who take to the woods for very specific reasons, but their ambiguity serves the opening of the story, because it makes them vulnerable to ethereal interference.
The second half of the book degrades into confused chaos, though. As the humans fall deeper under the faeries' spell, the narrative quickly becomes jumbled and hazy. Molly and Will, whose stories had been compelling, get lost entirely in the enchanted shuffle. Henry's experience is only somewhat clearer. The reader does learn some more pieces of the backstory, some threads that tie these seemingly unrelated people together, but there's no real sense of a greater point to it, no driving force behind what's happening, and no ultimate goal for them to work towards.
And perhaps that's all to the author's purpose. Perhaps that chaos is precisely what Adrian is aiming for, to portray the senselessness of the whirlwind the Beast creates. Which is why I say, if that's the case, then it's extremely well-done. But even well-done, it interfered with my ability to enjoy the book. I like a good, solid story, some sense of cohesion, which 'The Great Night' lacks. As the mortals falls deeper into the madness of the night, their experiences become clogged with symbolism. Adrian takes it a step too far, I think, laying the metaphors on a bit too thick, and the story loses both coherence and emotional engagement as a result. Certain sections also edge into what I would consider pointlessly pornographic territory. I'm no prude and I'm certainly not against sex in literature, but so much of it felt like Adrian inserted it into the story just so he could shockingly juxtapose crude earthiness with the idea of the faery magic, or just so he had an excuse to jar the reader with naughty words. It's yet another discordant thread -- perhaps intentional, but it didn't particularly serve the story.
The ending of the book is a problem. Abrupt and anticlimactic, it circumvents any kind of resolution for the characters. The mortals' stories, set up so well at the beginning, reach no conclusion. They don't even move along -- we don't see any indication that they've been changed by their time in the woods, that they'll go back to real life different than before, because we don't see them at the end. There's no sense of alteration or growth. No one has a dramatic arc except Titania, perhaps, and even her story ends ambiguously, with no denouement. Adrian throws the reader into a maelstrom and then never calms the seas. Again, this confusion might be intentional, but it's unsatisfying.
Ultimately, I'm glad I read this book. I always enjoy seeing how other writers interpret Shakespearean themes, and sections of 'The Great Night' are quite strong and worth reading. The story as a whole, however, just doesn't hang together. The disparate threads never reconnect, too many characters never reach resolution, and too much seems extraneous. 'The Great Night' is an interesting experiment, but the book would have profited from more tightening and precision.
Adrian's fantasy adventure expands on his short story, "A Tiny Feast," centering on King Oberon and the ruthless Queen Titania and their changeling son, Boy, who suffered from leukemia. At the start of this novel, Titania is inconsolable after the death of Boy and the subsequent departure of Oberon. She unleashes a malevolent, ancient force of magic by removing the controlling constraints of Puck, thereby allowing his demonic urges to run rampant through the park.
Meanwhile, three heartbroken people with sorrowful memories of forsaken loved ones are lost and trapped in the park on their way to a summer solstice party. The tangled back stories unleash the bitter coils of pain and loss, and the mortals and immortals eventually interlock with loose springs.
Molly grew up in a pious, gospel-singing family, fuel for unresolved trauma that preys on her like a ghost, and she remains stuck and heartsick over the suicide of her lover, Ryan. Will is a tree surgeon who was dumped by Carolina, the only woman he has ever loved. Henry has a black past with memory holes; he was abducted as a child and has forgotten the terror of those years. Meanwhile, his obsessive cleaning and hand washing, which serves him well as a physician, has cost him a relationship with pediatrician Bobby, the man of his dreams who is now his ex-boyfriend.
Adrian flashes backward into the lives of the mortal three and alternates that with the captivity at the park and the faerie kingdom tale. There were shades of John Crowley's Little, Big, as both books use some similar unrealistic elements and fantasy to enhance the realistic elements and emotional heft. However, Crowley's faeries are more subtle and subconscious, and don't violate the moral codes of humanity as wickedly as Adrian's. Crowley also combines a Carrollian and Dickensian wit and artistry that would have been welcome in Adrian's story.
The essential problem with this book is that the fantastic elements are crowded with too much symbolism and disorder, and getting a purchase on the concepts is slippery. The visual surrealism, rather than plunging the story seamlessly to a deeper consciousness, began to pile up and distract from the story. The action and commotion of the faeries often proved bewildering, and the reading experience was cerebral and exhausting. Adrian's narrative was too loose and boggy to stay engaged.
I was taken with his scuttling energy and the peering furtive faces, and felt the oppressive weight of the shadowed victims. But I was also dizzy, blindfolded and drugged by too much screwball humor adjacent to tragedy, and the clarity was muddied. Adrian's prose is rich and layered with multiple motifs. It was eventually difficult to identify the core of the story. The fate of Molly, Will, and Henry was subverted by an anticlimactic ending amid black humor and zany twists of immortal madcap magic and erotic mayhem.
However, the story resonated at many turns. There is a bizarre and churlish glee to the prose and a willingness to take the reader to unknown zones of scary emotional wilderness. Despite the novel's flabby focus, I shall inevitably look for more of this esteemed "20 under 40" writer's works in the future. He captivates with his perversely baroque and insane merriment.
This review is based on the hardcover edition received from the publisher.