© 2024 KOSU
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Midsummer's 'Great Night,' Lost In San Francisco

In Chris Adrian's magical third novel, the unbearable heaviness of being finds both expression and relief in the supernatural world of faeries and beasts. Based loosely on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Great Night interweaves fantasy, mythology, enchantment and ribald sexuality to revisit several of this dazzling, deeply humane writer's pet themes: grief over failed relationships and dead brothers, the intolerable fact of childhood cancer and the not always straightforward connection between happiness and love.

Adrian, author of Gob's Grief and The Children's Hospital, has set his most complex work to date on the the summer solstice of 2008, the shortest night of the year. Three strangers, all San Franciscans recovering from heartbreak, head separately into Buena Vista Park just after dark on their way to a party celebrating summer. They all become hopelessly lost on their metaphorical journeys to self-discovery.

Little do Adrian's would-be partiers know that on this very night, the faeries who live deep in the hill are up in arms. Their queen, Titania, desolate after the death from leukemia of her adopted human son and the rupture of her marriage to philandering King Oberon, has unleashed an old menace, the puckish Beast — noxious "distillation[s] of sadness and heartbreak and despair" — who threatens to consume them all.

Its characters chase around the fog-shrouded forest, befuddled by mistaken identities, each seeing in the night's phantasmagoric events a reflection of their own obsessions.

The Great Night, like its Shakespearean template, features multiple plotlines that interconnect as its characters chase around the fog-shrouded forest, befuddled by mistaken identities, each seeing in the night's phantasmagoric events a reflection of their own obsessions. Molly, recovering from her boyfriend's suicide, is convinced that she has finally cracked up and it's all a figment of her imagination. Will, an arborist and short story writer who has lost a brother to drugs, hopes to win back his girlfriend, an artist obsessed with her dead brother and a mysterious tree in her back yard. Henry, who, like Adrian, is a pediatric oncologist, feels "at ease in the habit of culpability" and blames "the obsessive prisons of his imagination" for his devastating breakup with his boyfriend — whom he comes to conflate with the Beast that stole his innocence.

Meanwhile, a group of homeless people have also gathered in the park to rehearse a camp musical version of the cult 1973 sci-fi movie, Soylent Green, to protest the city mayor's outrageous policies toward the destitute. Their leader, convinced that the Beast is the Mayor, hooks up with Titania to defeat him with a raunchy assertion of life.

Chris Adrian is the author of <em>The Children's Hospital </em>and has written for <em>McSweeney's </em>and <em>The New Yorker</em>. He lives in Boston and San Francisco.
/ Gus Elliott
Gus Elliott
Chris Adrian is the author of The Children's Hospital and has written for McSweeney's and The New Yorker. He lives in Boston and San Francisco.

The Great Night recalls Vikram Seth's wonderful 1986 novel in verse, The Golden Gate, which transposed another classic to contemporary San Francisco — Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin — and also explored the universal, often thwarted pursuit of love. But Adrian, who holds a master's degree in Divinity from Harvard and a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing from Iowa in addition to his medical degree, 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. This speech, from Act V, Scene I of A Midsummer Night's Dream, aptly describes the nature of Adrian's remarkable talent:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
KOSU is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.