Posted Sunday, May 1, 2011, at 5:05 AM
I’ve always thought that, underneath all the farce and fairy dust, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a pretty sad, strange play; even sinister, in its way. Its theme is love, but its lovers' various affairs and entanglements are all shadowed by violence, deception, humiliation, and loss. It’s this frightening emotional undercurrent, even more than the play’s familiar comic sparkle, that Chris Adrian mines in The Great Night , his new riff on Shakespeare’s classic tale.
Adrian-recently anointed one of the New Yorker ’s "20 Under 40" -sets his tale in current-day San Francisco, where the fairy court from Midsummer has taken up residence under a giant hill in Buena Vista Park. Titania, their queen, is distraught. Her adopted son-a changeling, stolen from a human family-has died of leukemia. Her marriage has cracked under the stress, and her husband, Oberon, has disappeared into the city fog. In a desperate attempt to lure him back, Titania unleashes the beast Puck, hoping that the ensuing mayhem will rouse the king from his self-imposed exile. (In Midsummer , Puck is a prancing scamp who makes old ladies fall on their bums; in this world, he eats people.)
Three unsuspecting humans become trapped in the park on that fateful night. Each of them, like Titania, is also in mourning. Henry, a nervous, emotionally tentative pediatrician, drove away a cherished boyfriend with his increasingly severe OCD. Will’s girlfriend left him after he cheated on her. Molly’s boyfriend hung himself from a tree.
Intense emotion always puts you on the threshold of the magical, in that it opens up a portal to a new plane of experience. The mash-up world Adrian has created, where the fantastical sits uneasily, and queasily, alongside the mundane, captures this notion beautifully-particularly the way the loss of a loved one can push you to a place where you become estranged from yourself. (Adrian’s other life as a pediatric oncologist, one assumes, has made him well acquainted with grief.)
Adrian has all the right narrative elements in place: wonderful, distinct characters; a flair for scene-setting detail; a vivid imagination sweetened with just the right amount of hothouse floridness. He has a fine sense of the absurd. Even though the bawdier comic bits felt a little forced to me, I would love to see Hayao Miyazaki take a crack at animating the "sea of disembodied penises" that Will encounters under the fairy hill. (They come "softly shambling toward him on variously sized testicle feet," nuzzling his ankles, "harmless as a roiling basket of puppies.") Late in the novel there’s a wonderful set piece that I can’t really describe without spoiling one of the novel’s deeply buried surprises, but it reads like a perfectly cracked revision of Peter Pan .
Ultimately, though, while nearly every individual scene held my attention, I never quite got the sense that the various storylines were coming together in a satisfying way, or that the book, as a whole, was moving confidently in any given direction. The truly weird, uncanny heart of the novel-a secret back-story that connects the three wandering humans with the fairy kingdom-has the potential to be heartbreaking. The climax could have been epic. But they’re both muted by the book’s unfocused structure. Sometimes the reader, too, feels caught in a magic fog: The Great Night is hard to grasp, if also hard to shake.