The Great Night
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 293 pp., $26
Chris Adrian's third novel, "The Great Night," comes billed as a contemporary retelling of William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," although that's not really accurate. Yes, the book takes place on Midsummer's Night 2008, in a dream version of San Francisco; yes, its characters include Titania and Oberon, and a malevolent, supercharged version of Puck. But what Adrian seems to have in mind is less of a recasting than a riff, an extrapolation, even a spinoff — a story that picks up where the original left off.
Unfolding in both the natural world and the supernatural one, the novel involves three mismatched mortals Henry, Will and Molly—each of whom stumbles into a faerie kingdom while on the way to a party. That this kingdom should exist in Buena Vista Park, that unruly hilltop rising above Haight Street, is unexpectedly appropriate: Seedy, run-down, yet at the same time oddly mystical, the park represents a perfect metaphor for the uncertainty the faeries find themselves facing in the aftermath of a tragedy that has broken up the marriage of their king and queen.
Star-crossed lovers, of course, are at the heart of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" — Titania and Oberon, Demetrius and Helena, Lysander and Hermia — yet the play, in the convention of Shakespeare's comedies, ends with a group wedding and tidings of future joy. The world of "The Great Night" is far darker, fraught with dangers to the body and the soul.
As in the original, the rift between Titania and Oberon is over a changeling, but here, that boy dies of leukemia, giving the faerie queen a taste of loss, of mourning, that she has never known. And also as in Shakespeare, the plot moves forward by coincidence, accident, small bits of magic; there are deliriums and incantations and a play within a play, in this case a homeless man's ragged adaptation of the 1973 science fiction movie "Soylent Green."
Adrian, however, seems to use his story to ask different questions, not about love so much as about its lack. Although there is intimacy here, it is more sexual than romantic: brief, frenzied, an itch that can't be scratched. That's compelling in a certain sense, and more accurate to the alienation of these characters than the whimsical love play of "Midsummer," but it requires a complex resolution in which fantasy is less important than fatalism, and the faerie kingdom fades before the city outside its walls. For the first half of "The Great Night," Adrian is up to the challenge, but as the novel progresses and the stakes get higher, all the charm of its invention can't hide an uneasy emptiness at its core.
Mostly, this has to do with the mortals who, inhabiting both the real and metaphorical worlds, are never fully participants in either one. All three have lost someone — Henry, his lover Bobby; Will, his girlfriend Carolina; and most tragically Molly, whose boyfriend, Ryan, has committed suicide. On the one hand, this suggests that, for these characters anyway, there can be no reconciliation, no love made right by the casting of a spell. "But it is all for nothing, my love," Titania explains late in the book. "We've already lost, and there's nothing left but this lovely delusion. I am reduced, and you are dead already."
And yet, that's not true, not exactly, for the narrative engine of the novel has to do with how each of them, in his or her way, navigates the night. For Henry, who was an abducted child, his experiences reveal an essential piece of his history, which links to that of his compatriots in ways both specific and oblique. For Molly and Will, the discoveries have to do with their lost loves and who they might have been. The conceit is that, in the underground labyrinth that the faeries occupy beneath the park, the three of them confront something more real, more elemental than they see in their daily lives. "Mortal!" shouts one faerie, as if to make the point explicit. "Always it's a dream. Maybe you're the dream."
That's a great idea, the notion that in the rush and madness of existence, we often miss what's most important until it is too late. Arguably, it's what has happened to Henry and Will and Molly, as well as to Titania and Oberon. "Hell would be raised," Titania thinks, after releasing Puck to perform his mayhem, "and Oberon would come or not, but at least there would be no more idle tears. The night would end in joy or ruin, and somehow that was easier to abide than an endless, static grief." What this requires, though, is an edge of risk, of drama, a sense that the fantastic world is as true as its more realistic counterpart, that what happens beneath the park matters in the same way as what happens above the ground.
Adrian tries to make this work, rendering Puck as a shape-shifting monster, connecting the mortals to one another and to the faerie world. Some of his set pieces are astonishing: A long sequence about Molly's childhood flirtation with a foster child who comes to live with her Christian family is the best piece of writing in the book, drenched with young lust and religious obligation and the confusion of not quite knowing what you want. But even as you read it, you can't help wondering why it's there.
For Molly under the ground, that past remains fundamentally distant, and the same is true of Will's indiscretions and Henry's lost childhood years. In fact, the further we get into the book, the more it begins to seem oddly bifurcated, with Adrian pulling out of the present action — the trio's misadventures in the faerie kingdom and their efforts to get home — to offer extended bits of flashback with the result that "The Great Night" never quite achieves a fully realized narrative flow.
To be fair, this is part of the novel's design, which only reveals the depth of its interweaving once we're done. That's one of its pleasures, the sense of discovery, of interaction as lives come apart or join together like the filaments of a web. Still, without a sense of peril, of real and present danger, the structure adds up to something of a hollow architecture. It may be true, as Henry reflects, that "the strangest and most wonderful discovery of the night … was to feel so powerful and so helpless." But despite its charms, "The Great Night" lacks the necessary tension to make us feel powerful or helpless enough.