The Great Night by Chris Adrian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In order to love The Great Night, it probably helps to be a San Franciscan, to have pledged your heart to this hilly, foggy, colorful, magical city. It probably helps to be heartbroken, or at least trying to get over a painful loss. It helps to be the kind of person who bursts out giggling when introduced to three faerie characters named "Lyon," "Oak," and "Fell," realizing that while these are good names for faeries, they are also the names of streets near Buena Vista Park, where the story takes place. It helps to have ridden the N Judah downtown every weekday for the past six years, traveling through the tunnel under Buena Vista Park every morning and evening, and to experience this commuter-train journey with a new sense of wonder as you read about Oberon and Titania holding court in a fantastical palace under this hill. It probably helps, too, to be a theater-lover, whose first experience with Shakespeare was A Midsummer Night's Dream; to have recently written a short play yourself about dryads, oak-tree nymphs, and thus appreciate the novel's depiction of a faerie oak...
I can try to look at this novel more objectively, of course. I can recognize that it isn't perfect, though I may be close to a perfect reader for it, or have discovered it at the right time in my life. The main action takes place on Midsummer Night in 2008, but at least half of the book is taken up with flashbacks that fill in the backstories of its human and faerie characters. The three main human characters, Molly, Will, and Henry, are all about 30 years old and have suffered two major tragedies in their lives -- one during adolescence and one more recently. And the laying-out of their backstories can seem overly schematic, not to mention depressing; clearly, Chris Adrian wants to explore themes of grief and suffering and healing, but sometimes the characters seem like no more than the sum of their misfortunes. The faerie queen Titania, meanwhile, has suffered the greatest loss of all: her changeling son died of leukemia at UCSF hospital, and in her grief, she drove her husband Oberon away.
Though billed as a contemporary take on A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Great Night also seems to draw inspiration from other, later Shakespeare plays. While the rude mechanicals in Midsummer are preparing a play to entertain the king, the band of homeless theater-makers in Adrian's novel wish to "catch the conscience of the king," or rather, the Mayor, with their production of a musical version of Soylent Green. (They are convinced that the Mayor is killing homeless people and turning their bodies into the food served at homeless shelters. This is all the funnier if you pick up Adrian's clues that the mayor in question is Gavin Newsom, S.F.'s slick scion of privilege.) And the novel's focus on themes of grief and loss does not recall the lighthearted Midsummer so much as more "mature" Shakespeare plays like King Lear and The Tempest.
This is an ambitious novel, mixing realism and fantasy and humor and sorrow, shifting its point of view every few pages -- and I can acknowledge that it doesn't always work. But mostly, I'm just so happy to see my San Francisco, the 21st-century Mission and Haight and Sunset, captured in fiction so well and so lovingly. (I love Tales of the City, but it mostly takes place in Russian Hill and Pac Heights, neighborhoods where my friends and I rarely have cause to venture.) Descriptions of the faeries sprucing up a sterile hospital room, or Titania's bad blind date with a Marina bro, feel funny and painful and, in spite of everything, true. Because this feels like the kind of city where such things can happen.
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