When I think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I remember my university English professor lecturing about the farcical hilarity of the young lovers running after each other in the woods and getting lost. I remember Robert Sean Leonard in Dead Poet’s Society, one of my all-time favourite films, as Puck, with a crown of leaves gleefully explaining his plan to another fairy, then looking absolutely dejected in the final soliloquy, as he notices his family in the audience. I do not imagine the world of Puck transported to present day San Francisco, but I’m so glad Chris Adrian has. The Great Night has transformed one of Shakespeare’s most delightful plays into a dark, contemporary novel that blends horror, fantasy, humour, and, if I may say so about a novel populated by fairies, realism.
No longer a mischievous trickster, Adrian’s Puck is a malevolent being who has been held captive by fairy royals Titania and Oberon. Puck in The Great Night is scary – “he was often the image of one’s worst fear or most troubling anxiety.” Titania becomes a grieving mother – her adopted son has died, and her husband has left her. She releases Puck in despair, hoping this would bring Oberon back to her, and instead setting off the series of events in the novel. Midsummer’s young lovers are now three young people who are broken hearted in some way, and the troupe of actors are now a group of homeless political activists who plan a Hamlet Mousetrap-esque musical for the Mayor.
I love what Adrian has done with this story. While he uses Midsummer characters like Titania and Puck, and some Midsummer plot devices, The Great Night is in so many ways a completely original story. Titania in particular is such a nuanced character. She cattily insults a human nurse, barely bothering to maintain the fairy glamour that makes humans perceive normality and social convention in the presence of a fairy. Yet even in that scene, she is terrified of losing her human Boy, whom Oberon has given to her as a gift and whom she has grown to love, even more than she loves Oberon. She is a fiercely protective mother, and the tragedy is that, even with all her fairy powers, she is still utterly helpless against human illness.
The young humans are fascinating as well. They each have detailed back stories, and are all seriously messed up, in quirky and endearing, but also heart-tugging ways. Molly, for example, grew up in a foster family that had a gospel band, and is now dealing with her boyfriend’s suicide. Harry has a phobia of dirt and has just broken up with his boyfriend, and Will wants to get a girl’s attention.
Adrian alternates between chapters about their current predicament – being trapped in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park on their way to a party – and glimpses into their lives. At times, this got a bit confusing, as Adrian travels often not just between present day and background, but also between layers of back story. I found myself having to go back sometimes to check who a particular character is. It was mostly an odd mix between being solidly grounded in reality and being kept off-balance by rapid jumps in time and between characters. Adrian is nowhere near as skilled as Ishiguro who, in The Unconsoled, created such a wonderful world of unreality yet with such a core of reality. Then again, I don’t think he aspired to do that. On the contrary, Adrian grounds his story in realism, yet with enough fantastical elements to keep us off-balance, and I think his writing style helped enhance that experience.
I enjoyed reading The Great Night. The characters are wonderfully fleshed out – even Puck is revealed later in the novel to have an almost human motivation for his actions. Adrian’s tone moves from humour (both dark comedy and slapstick) to screwball eroticism to straight up terror, but all with a strong emotional core. Adrian is one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” to watch, and I can see why.