Chris Adrian’s third novel, The Great Night, tackles the bold project of updating Shakespeare to the modern age, but in the process, loses all its mirth. In this Midsummer Night’s Dream, foolish mortal and fairy alike are burdened with personal tragedy, but only one is worth redeeming.
The ritual celebration of The Great Night brings fairies from all over the world to the court of Titania and Oberon, overlapping with the terrestrial world in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. Separated from Oberon for years after the death of the human boy Puck brought them as a pet, Titania waits for him another year in vain; then, dismissing her courtiers’ advice, she frees Puck. The resultant spell traps the fairies in the park, as well as a trio of lovelorn mortals on their way to the Great Night party, unaware that the paths they’ve been wandering are about to collapse in on them: Will, reeling from the end of his marriage, fantasizes about one-upping his ex-wife, while Henry longs to prove to his ex-boyfriend that he’s changed enough to prompt a reunion, and Molly obsesses about how she could have reached her lover before he committed suicide.
Adrian’s premise is delivered whole like a stage set in the first chapter of The Great Night—it’s ornate, beautiful, and lifeless. Adrian continues to fill in the colors of that scene and gild its corners, but never develops it beyond the obvious contrast between the kingdom of all possibilities and the mortal world beyond its borders. Instead, it feels so wedded to the seriousness of defending that world’s existence that the novel preserves none of the humor of Shakespeare’s comedy of mistaken identity, and all of the hurt. As Adrian strains not to seem too concrete, the laws governing the fairy kingdom are rendered so vague that future plot turns can’t rest on them steadily.
When it comes to its human players—besides the partygoers, a loose collection of park-dwelling indigents also feature prominently in the fairy games—The Great Night particularly slights the comedic nature of their accidental induction into this unseen world. Along with the human boy, whose absence is the most moving part of the novel, they suggest figures that exist specifically for their suffering. And nothing is in store but more suffering, with no chance of revenge for their captivity. As wounded pieces of backstory tossed around in incoherent setpieces, the human characters throw Titania’s grief out of proportion with their own. When their fates cease to be important, the novel supposedly built around them whips a resolution out of a few pretty scenes, and discards their plights as if they had all been a dream.