Chris Adrian, modern day renaissance man, is a medical doctor, holds a Ph.D. in divinity, graduated from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop and has somehow found the time to publish three novels. Adrian’s previous novel imagined a children’s hospital that becomes an ark of sorts when the world is destroyed by a great flood. At 1000+ pages, Children’s Hospital overflowed with spiritual allegory and exploration of Big Ideas. Adrian’s new novel, The Great Night is leaner and explores many of the same Big Ideas, albeit less successfully.
The Great Night is not so much a retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream than a complete reimagining of the story. Although there a funny moments, Adrian’s tale is not a comedy. Instead, it is a magical meditation on heart break, loss, and other forms of human misery.
The faeries in Adrian’s vision live under a hillside in modern day San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. The faerie queen, Titiana, disrupts the preparations for the midsummer night’s festival by releasing Puck from bondage to find Oberon, her estranged husband and king of the faeries. Puck, more imp than jester in this telling, instead vows to seek revenge for his imprisonment by destroying the faerie’s world.
Three mortals who happen to be wandering through the park become drawn into the faeries’ conflict. When Puck begins to wreak his havoc, the three become trapped there and the faerie realm is revealed to them, as are their own links to the usually hidden realm
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Adrian is at his best when he explores the relationships within hospitals. Early on in the novel, Tatiana experiences her first taste of human emotion and frailty when she is unable to use magic to ease the suffering of her adopted human child:
It seemed a marvel to her that any mortal should suffer for lack of love, and yet she had never known a mortal who didn’t feel unloved. There was enough love just in this ugly hallway, she though, that one should never feel the lack of it again. She peered at the parents imagining their hearts like machines, manufacturing surfeit upon surfeit of love for their children, and then she wondered how something could be so awesome and so utterly powerless.
As strong and emotive as Adrian’s writing is through much of the novel, it suffers under the weight of trying to accomplish too much. Plot lines become overly complicated to the detriment of the narrative, and Adrian’s Big Ideas ultimately get in the way of telling an interesting story. In perhaps one of the more misguided moments of the novel, a musical adaptation of the dated Charlton Heston vehicle, Soylent Green, serves as the backdrop for the book’s climactic scene. It’s as though Adrian, arriving at the end of the novel, suddenly loses control of the narrative. Less a midsummer night’s dream, Great Night is actually much ado about nothing.
Adrian will be reading at the Decatur Book Festival in September. I will definitely check it out. I want to hear him talk about what this book meant to him and, hopefully, he’ll talk about Children’s Hospital, too.