Midsummer nightmare: A review of The Great Night, by Chris Adrian

The human aspects of the story are as important as the chaotic faerie framework. Each of the three singular characters comes from a very different background, but each intersects with the others in wonderful and unexpected ways.

She raised her arms, and shrugged her shoulders, and opened her mouth as if to laugh, but didn’t laugh. The difference, she decided, was that now there was something to be done. Hell would be raised, and Oberon would come or not, but at least there would be no more idle tears.

Something is gloriously, tragically amiss in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. In fact, to mix my Shakespeare quotes, something wicked this way comes. It’s also something strange and chaotic and deeply human.

In Chris Adrian’s The Great Night, the faerie court of Titania and Oberon are celebrating another Midsummer Night, many moons after the events of Shakespeare’s play—though “celebrating” is not exactly the right word. After the cancer death of their changeling son, Titania has spurned Oberon, who has subsequently disappeared, and her unchecked grief rules the night. Unable to manage or even comprehend her sadness fully, Titania does the unthinkable: she removes the magic that binds the trickster Puck to the royal will, unleashing him upon the court, the park, and eventually the city. Into this world wander three heartbroken humans whose own histories are rife with the kind of tragedy Titania is languishing in, as well as the requisite rude mechanicals (in this case five homeless people who want to put on a musical version of Soylent Green to bring to light a Swiftian cannibalistic conspiracy they believe the mayor is perpetrating).

All of which is to say, a lot is going on here. This book is billed as a reimagining of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which isn’t quite right. This is far closer to a sequel or at least a jumping-off point. Unlike the merry mayhem of Shakespeare’s beloved comedy, The Great Night is, above all else, a tragedy. The book uses the well-known faerie characters to spin tales of heartbreak, tracing the pasts of each of the five main actors (Will, Molly, and Henry the humans, Titania, and to a lesser extent the rude mechanicals), showing us their origins, their intersections, and, ultimately, their fates. Much remains mysterious at first, which makes this a real page-turner. You want to know what’s happened to these lovely, broken people, and what will happen to them if Puck wins the night.

As it turns out, Puck is not that, well, puckish creature you remember from outdoor summer stagings of the play. He is an ancient menace, deeply powerful—perhaps unstoppable. Kept in check for millennia by Oberon’s magic, he is out for vengeance, for reasons both straightforward and mysterious until the end. Adrian delivers him as a palpably dangerous villain and the terror he inspires in the faerie court creates jittery suspense for the present-day part of the narrative. His promise to Titania, “I will eat you last,” gave me shivers.

Just as splendid is Adrian’s Titania as the weeping queen, the bewildered mother, and the battle-hardened commander marching to war. Her tragedy is at once immediate and distant. She finds herself mired in the horrors of the contemporary world: a child lost to leukemia whom modern medicine could not save, a husband who has left her, possibly for good. Both concepts—disease/death and loss of love—are foreign to her, and one of the best parts of the story (in fact, what started out as its own standalone story, “The Tiny Feast,”) show Titania and Oberon fretting over their adopted boy as he slowly fades away from them. At one point, as the chemo begins to work, Oberon praises the doctors by saying “you have poisoned him well!” The modern world is as strange and mystical to the faeries are their world is to us, and each side’s inability to deal with the other’s mystery makes for excellent reading.

The human aspects of the story are as important as the chaotic faerie framework. Each of the three singular characters comes from a very different background, but each intersects with the others in wonderful and unexpected ways. Their stories and their heartbreaks twin with the faerie tragedy unfolding incomprehensibly around them, and their reactions to the magic and to each other are wonderful: Molly with the suicide of her boyfriend and her almost cultlike upbringing; Will and his destructive relationship with a strange woman in a strange house; and Henry, whose boyfriend has left him, who cannot remember his childhood because he was abducted for several years, and whose mother is possibly more damaging to him than the abduction was.

The group of homeless fares less well: they feel dropped into the story because there must be rude mechanicals, and their lunatic quest and conspiracy theory don’t hold up as well. They are less well developed than the rest of the characters, and while they, too, have suffered sadness, it feels sketched out and at times more of a caricature. A nodding glance toward the Bottom-the-ass part of the play, in which Titania is temporarily enchanted to fall in love the homeless’ leader, Huff, and make his musical better, feels rushed through.

Indeed, at times it feels like Adrian is trying to do too much, which is perhaps not surprising, given the number of characters and plots and intrigues going on here. And until the very end, no one sub-plot or character is given precedence over the other, which means the story is at times hard to pinpoint. A weakness, but also part of the point: the faerie court is chaos incarnate, and the book reflects this precarious, Pisa-style layering of stories tilting dangerously against each other. The visual descriptions, however, are stunning, and work to anchor us within the surreal world of the park. Adrian also does some subtle work with coincidences, echoing the uncanniness of the faerie court: a character named Peaches followed by a scene where Titania demands a peach; repetition of first names here and there; and genuine intersections where characters have met one another, or almost met them, outside of this night.

This phantasmagorical, often sad, often funny, very scary tale is a mind-full. While it stumbles at times in pacing and characterization, its heaps of tragic, magical, surreal narrative are definitely worth spending a great night (or three) with.

Four out of five blue pencils

The Great Night, by Chris Adrian, published in Canada by HarperCollins, © 2011

Available at Amazon.caIndigo, and fine independent bookstores everywhere.

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