The Great Night : A Novel

  • Chris Adrian
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 304 pp.

Modern relationships in San Francisco, under the spell of Queen Titania from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Reviewed by Martha Toll

Who remembers Titania’s boy, stolen from an Indian king? Puck informs us that Queen Titania “never had so sweet a changeling.” The boy sparks King Oberon’s jealous wrath in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — an offstage but essential catalyst for all that follows. Even so, we tend to forget about him as we get ensnared in the ensuing drama.

Not so in Chris Adrian’s The Great Night, a reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s play. Titania’s boy not only overshadows the book, but also reverberates through a series of boys like repeating images in opposite mirrors. Set in 2008, the novel tells the story of three humans lost in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. Henry, a pediatrician, has been rejected by his longtime boyfriend, Bobby; Molly mourns the suicide of her lover, Ryan; and Will is dealing with his break-up with Caroline (who happens to be Ryan’s sister), to whom he has been unfaithful. Eclipsing the humans’ grief is that of the faerie queen Titania, whose agonies trump all as she unleashes wanton chaos following the death of her adopted human boy, and the end of her marriage to Oberon.

In the Shakespearean lexicon, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is classified as a comedy. The Great Night is not. All does not end well for some of the characters, and although the book is airily narrated, the real comedy is the human comedy — the follies and foibles and heartbreaking misadventures of the people.

The novel progresses from an ordered story line to a text that is increasingly confused and disturbing as reality becomes subordinate to the characters’ dreams, or more accurately, nightmares. A homeless man, Huff, and his crew practice a musical adaptation of “Soylent Green,” a 1970s film in which an overpopulated world survives on wafers made from dead bodies. Like Shakespeare’s Bottom, Huff ultimately shacks up with Titania — in between play rehearsals and his frustrated efforts to bring attention to the fact that the San Francisco mayor is killing homeless people to process them into food.

Titania releases the book’s haunting menace by uttering the incantation “Poodle.” The menace appears to mean different things to different characters, but it becomes embodied toward the end as a black dog. To this reader, the allusion is to Churchill’s “black dog”—depression. Indeed, more than fleeing doomed relationships, the humans are fleeing psychological trauma. Henry has extreme obsessive compulsive disorder, which ultimately causes the destruction of his relationship. Even though he can’t retrieve the memories, Henry does know that he was a missing child for six years. When he returns home, it is to his abandoned single mother, an alcoholic. Henry cannot fill in the gap in his past until the end of the book. Not only does Molly discover her lover’s body in the noose, but she also revisits the scars from growing up in an evangelical Christian family whose parents suppress all emotion. They force their biological children into a traveling singing group while a parade of foster children destabilize and damage the family as they temporarily pass through it.

The foster children resonate with the lost boys who populate the last part of the book. As the story degenerates to a relentlessly unfolding series of horrors, the author tips his hat to “Peter Pan,” and perhaps to Fagin’s thieving boys in Oliver Twist as well. Faeries adore their changelings, and Titania’s dead boy is no exception.

Chris Adrian, selected by The New Yorker in 2010 as one of its “20 Under 40” most promising writers, divides his time between practicing pediatric hematology-oncology at the University of California at San Francisco and studying at the Harvard Divinity School. His considerable technical prowess is evident as we ride wave upon wave of reality interspersed with fantasy. Both his medical background and divinity studies inform the narrative. He gives us a window into his oncology practice as we sit with Titania in her son’s hospital room and share the unending misery of parents condemned to watch their bald and suffering children die.

The Great Night refers to a night of faerie revelry — when all the madcap, upside-down antics come together — but it suggests a Christian allegory as well. At a dinner honoring one of the lost boys, a character asks, “How is this night different from all other nights?” alluding to Christ’s Last Supper (a Passover Seder) before the scapegoating to come. This question is followed by a discussion of forgetting, intimating that society forgets and ignores our humanity, or betrays and denies it, as in the case of Judas Iscariot.

It is ironic that the faerie Titania, casting spells and transfiguring herself throughout the book, is the most three-dimensional of the characters. The descriptions of both the death of her child and the death of her marriage are emotionally convincing. They make Titania sympathetic, even as she wreaks havoc. It is harder to connect with the humans, whose stories unfold at breakneck speed across geography and time, including the future. The furious pacing interferes with the possibility of an empathic read. We can hardly absorb the human suffering; we are too busy trying to keep up with the characters and their pasts, hurtling by.

The novel is saturated with sex and sexual imagery. But is it sexy? And is it meant to be? Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty strikes a contrast, with its sensual and emotionally absorbing consideration of gay love during the 1980s. Like Hollinghurst, Adrian is also a courageous and brazen writer, but communicating sensuality does not seem to be his goal.  Despite the intensity of the drama, Adrian is a dispassionate observer. He faces the reality of “fairies” in contemporary San Francisco with a no-holds-barred look at gay life and love and all the attendant complexities. He brings the same powers of observation to the straight world. Another contemporary writer, Charles Baxter, also used “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as the starting point for his novel The Feast of Love. Baxter doesn’t avoid love’s dark side, but Adrian brings us deeper into the darkness.

Not until the end of The Great Night do we understand where Adrian is going. Love, Molly realizes, is better than anything else, even faerie magic. Henry, too, arrives at this conclusion.  Loss is something from which we never recover. A mortal woman who tells Titania that her grief over her dead child will get better over time, immediately contradicts herself. Unlike their Shakespearean counterparts, relationships do not always work out. Moreover, we are responsible for killing our relationships — just as Titania destroys her marriage.

Given the book’s speed and intensity, The Great Night is not an easy read. Each page is so densely packed that reading it feels like drinking from a fire hose. Adrian has wisdom to impart, but you may have to wait to absorb it until you put the book down.

Martha Toll is executive director of the Butler Family Fund, a nationwide philanthropy focused on ending homelessness and the death penalty. She has been featured as a book commentator on NPR and has just received representation for her debut novel.

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