Recently when British novelist David Mitchell was a guest on the National Public Radio show “Fresh Air,’’ he told host Terry Gross, “Shakespeare cleaned everything up. There’s no new turf after him, really. All the postmodern themes, the play-within-a-play, metafiction, it’s already been done in the 17th century.’’ Certainly a sizable bookcase could be filled with contemporary writers borrowing from the bard, sometimes in wildly inventive ways. Exhibit A? David Wroblewski’s “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle’’ — a.k.a., “Hamlet with Dogs.’’ Exhibit B? Jeanne Ray’s “Julie and Romeo’’ — a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet’’ featuring AARP-ready florists.
“The Great Night,’’ Chris Adrian’s phantasmagorically inspired new novel, is a part of that tradition. It is a sequel to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’’ (And make no mistake, this feels far more like a sequel than a mere retelling in another place and time.) Adrian has demonstrated a vast imagination in his earlier books, particularly “The Children’s Hospital,’’ a tale of doctors and patients and angels (yes, angels) in a post-apocalyptic hospital that has become the world’s new ark. He is a fellow in pediatric hematology-oncology and a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, and his work indeed suggests a profound interest in where life meets death and how we make sense of that great undiscovered country.
“The Great Night’’ is no exception. One night in mid-June, three brokenhearted lovers — Henry, Molly, and Will — wander into San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park, each of them a stranger but each on the way to the same party. Henry is a pediatric oncologist still reeling from his breakup with Bobby, another physician. Molly, a dropout from divinity school and now a slacker shop girl, has spent two years grieving over Ryan, her boyfriend who hanged himself. And Will, an arborist, is still hoping he can find a way to rekindle his relationship with his beloved Carolina, who is unwilling to forgive him for a casual but appallingly thoughtless sexual dalliance.
Ryan is the strange but powerful glue that links all three young adults: Not only was he Molly’s lover, he was Carolina’s brother. He also shares a deeply disturbing childhood secret with Henry.
In addition, that night the park is filled with the powerful Queen Titania and her court of faeries and magical creatures. Her husband, Oberon, is long gone, finding himself unable to cope with the death of his and Titania’s adopted, mortal boy, and the queen’s unbearable mourning. The child died of leukemia, and our view of his sickness, death, and the oncology ward are conveyed largely from Titania’s perspective, all presented with a combination of wrenching precision and wistful poetry. As Titania watches the boy cry and grow sick from the chemotherapy, she tries to make sense of the medicine: “Titania could not conceive of the way [the drugs] were made except as distillations of sadness and heartbreak and despair, 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.’’
Titania’s grief is so excruciating that she decides to end it all by unleashing a beast that will kill her, her court, and the mortals who happen to be in Buena Vista Park. In this case, that means setting Puck free from his servitude and allowing him to revert to a horrific monster. “Milady,’’ he says once the spell that has kept him in bondage is lifted, “I am in your debt, and so I will eat you last.’’
In short, this is a far cry from the lighter Shakespearean comedy of misplaced spells and comedic sprites.
In five parts, Adrian slowly reveals to us the three mortals’ secrets and longings and regrets: the paths that have led them into the park that night. Interspersed with their personal histories are their battles to survive Puck — and his ability to make real their innermost demons and fears.
Ironically, “The Great Night’’ felt most magical to me when Adrian focuses on the mortals’ pasts and Titania’s profoundly human grief. The secret behind Henry’s lost childhood years is especially haunting. The novel is less successful when the mortals are trapped in the park and under the spells of either Puck or the faeries. Some of the moments cross the line that separates disturbing and disgusting, such as when Will witnesses “a sea of disembodied penises, softly shambling toward him on variously sized testicle feet,’’ and then is attacked by “a swarming flock of vaginas that flew all around his head, biting him toothlessly on his ears and his cheeks and his neck.’’
Nevertheless, Adrian once again left me feeling both meditative and moved. It’s simply that in this book, the most enchanted evenings occurred well before the great night itself.
This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on April 24, 2011. Chris Bohjalian is the author of 14 books. His next novel, “The Night Strangers,’’ will be published in October.