Book Review: The Great Night, by Chris Adrian

The Great Night is a modernized retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco in 2008. A group of humans stumble into a disaster implemented by the Faery Queen, Titania, who is in the throes of deep sorrow. Following the death of their latest changeling child, Titania and Oberon had one of their marital spats — but this time, Oberon doesn’t seem to be coming back. Desperate to get the King to show himself and so absorbed with her grief that she loses all sensibility, Titania lifts the controlling enchantment off of Puck, also known as the Beast, freeing him to wreak havoc in the park. (The greater world is protected by walls of air — nothing, mundane or fantastical, gets in our out of the park while those walls, presumably conjured by Oberon, are up). The mortals trapped within are: Molly, recovering from the suicide of her boyfriend; Will, in love with a strange woman who dumped him a year ago; Henry, who can’t remember any of his life before the age of thirteen, and whose obsessive-compulsive habits drove away his boyfriend; and a group of homeless people rehearsing for a musical version of Soylent Green, led by Huff, who believes the Mayor of San Francisco is feeding the indigent population to each other in the soup kitchens. These mortals get wound up in the actions of the faeries, who are either giving over to sensual indulgence in what they presume to be their last hours, or who are seeking ways to put the Beast back under control.

There are things about this book which are really great. It’s definitely at its best when the faeries are the main focus. Titania and Oberon are sweeping, dramatic figures, and Adrian describes the lesser faeries in a way that balances nicely between whimsical and grotesque. The flashback section where Titania and Oberon have to watch their changeling child die is the strongest portion of the book. Because their magic cannot work on anything they care for, they have to turn to human medicine to try and save the Boy. They’re also struggling to deal with the emotional consequences of actually caring for a mortal child, as their self-absorption usually prevents such deep attachments to their changelings. Adrian does a great job showing how mortals perceive the faeries when they enter the mundane world, how the little magics affect them. He also — through his own background as a pediatrician — is able to evoke the tormented feelings of parents watching a child die with great sympathy and precision. The emotionality of this section is strong and compelling, and it paints a very clear picture.

As for the humans, their stories generally start off well enough — Molly, Will, and Henry, at least, inhabit complex emotional and psychological worlds. Huff and his tribe I could have done without. They seemed extraneous, none of them besides Huff developed any real personality, and I can’t figure out the purpose of the Soylent Green trope. Not having enough of a familiarity with that source material, I don’t know if there’s some larger theme at work there, or if the fixation is just a way to demonstrate the extent of Huff’s delusions. Regardless, it seems like that subplot only exists as a tacked-on way to have an analog for the Mechanicals, so that Titania has a fool to dote on when the Beast places her under an enchantment. But the lover-analogs are fascinating, if not wholly likeable. They all enter the story in liminal states, hedging between decisions, scared to take decisive action in controlling their lives, hesitant and varying degrees of pathetic. In this way, they’re precisely the opposite of Shakespeare’s lovers, who take to the woods for very specific reasons, but their ambiguity serves the opening of the story, because it makes them vulnerable to ethereal interference.

The second half of the book degrades into confused chaos, though. As the humans fall deeper under the faeries’ spell, the narrative quickly becomes jumbled and hazy. Molly and Will, whose stories had been compelling, get lost entirely in the enchanted shuffle. Henry’s experience is only somewhat clearer. The reader does learn some more pieces of the backstory, some threads that tie these seemingly unrelated people together, but there’s no real sense of a greater point to it, no driving force behind what’s happening, and no ultimate goal for them to work towards.

And perhaps that’s all to the author’s purpose. Perhaps that chaos is precisely what Adrian is aiming for, to portray the senselessness of the whirlwind the Beast creates. Which is why I say, if that’s the case, then it’s extremely well-done. But even well-done, it interfered with my ability to enjoy the book. I like a good, solid story, some sense of cohesion, which The Great Night lacks. As the mortals falls deeper into the madness of the night, their experiences become clogged with symbolism. Adrian takes it a step too far, I think, laying the metaphors on a bit too thick, and the story loses both coherence and emotional engagement as a result.

The ending of the book is a problem. Abrupt and anticlimactic, it circumvents any kind of resolution for the characters. The mortals’ stories, set up so well at the beginning, reach no conclusion. They don’t even move along — we don’t see any indication that they’ve been changed by their time in the woods, that they’ll go back to real life different than before, because we don’t see them at the end. There’s no sense of alteration or growth. No one has a dramatic arc except Titania, perhaps, and even her story ends ambiguously, with no denouement. Adrian throws the reader into a maelstrom and then never calms the seas. Again, this confusion might be intentional, but it’s unsatisfying.

Ultimately, I’m glad I read this book. I always enjoy seeing how other writers interpret Shakespearean themes, and sections of The Great Night are quite strong and worth reading. The story as a whole, however, just doesn’t hang together. The disparate threads never reconnect, too many characters never reach resolution, and too much seems extraneous. The Great Night is an interesting experiment, but the book would have profited from more tightening and precision.