Now that Chris Adrian has graduated from Harvard Divinity School, is just about done with his pediatric hematology-oncology fellowship at UCSF, and is no longer "Under 40," as The New Yorker has enjoyed describing him, whatever will become of the poor kid? Will he dismantle his meticulous armor of polymath precocity, relaxing at last into quasiretirement as merely a novelist? Not without a blitz, his new novel The Great Night suggests.
An arborist, an oncologist and a divinity-school dropout, all heartsick, walk into a park. Stop me if you've heard this one. No? They're on their way to what surely will be a legendary San Francisco party, with fairy royalty and the minions thereof, an ad hoc activist live musical production of Soylent Green, and such epic debauchery as will include a "sea of disembodied penises" and a "swarming flock of vaginas." Also (for context): Shakespeare.
In retrospect, maybe such things aren't so unusual around here. But anyway, this is the pretext for Adrian's elaborate, emotive, brilliant, noodling, uncalled-for-but-not-unwelcome riff on A Midsummer Night's Dream. And to be honest, I'm so wiped out from being with the thing that I can barely find the strength to tell you more. So it goes — gloriously, maddeningly — with Adrian, a self-evident seeker and restless fabulist whose great theme is grief. (See also his previous novels The Children's Hospital and Gob's Grief.) How amazing that he stays so busy with so many huge projects while some of us have enough trouble just reading one book and also getting the dishes done.
The Great Night begins with a vision of Buena Vista Park as corollary to the Bard's enchanted woods; maybe not since Sandow Birk reconfigured the city as Dante's Purgatory has San Francisco seen such a fancy literary primping. Shakespeare's riff-worthiness is well established, of course, with borrowings, repurposings, and retellings manifest in practically every art form by now. But there's just some innate, glee-inducing potential in the thought of transposing this particular play to this particular place. Adrian's raw affinity for the place, an affection bordering on pissy parochialism, is vulnerable and touching. As for the play, well, he's made some changes.
Among Midsummer's many satisfactions is the brisk efficiency of its narrative momentum. Being both poetry and a play (and a comedy at that), it zips right along, dispensing backstory on a need-to-know basis. By contrast, Adrian's book feels encumbered. It has a heavier tone, and indeed is haunted by backstory (there are good reasons for all the heartsickness). Being prose, it is necessarily denser, and sometimes, even for all its ministrations, prosaic.
That said, he is awfully handy with evocative declarations: "His teeth were as pointy and black and wet as the spines of a sea urchin." In Adrian's special world, it's important to consider that one man's meth casualty is another man's goblin. Particularly affecting is the well-conjured sight of Titania, queen of woodland fairies, standing helpless before the ugly mundanity of a children's cancer ward, gaping at the administration of chemotherapy drugs. "Titania could not conceive of the way they were made except as distillations of sadness and heartbreak and despair," Adrian writes, "since that was how she made her own poisons, shaking drops of terror out of a wren captured in her fist or sucking with a silver straw at the tears of a dog.''
And maybe there is some sort of neo-Swiftian satire going on with the Soylent Green shtick, but to me it works better as a half-unpacked personal nightmare, something about the doctor-novelist as practicing cannibal. Certainly it is Adrian's prerogative to explore the notion of fiction as medicine (and, less reassuringly, medicine as fiction), and to articulate his melancholy sense that magic, and by extension magical realism, has its limits. Somehow it's comforting to know he's still on call, working out the many ways people have of disappearing on us, or of appearing differently in different lights, transformed by sickness, sorcery, hindsight, or just the blunt familiar force of bereavement itself.