Friday, 18 November 2011

Book Review: The Great Night by Chris Adrian

The Great Night is one of those rare books that I’m impossibly grateful to have found. A modern reworking of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is conceptually daring, stylistically exciting and presents a view of humanity that is stark and powerful and unlike anything I’ve read before.

It is Midsummer’s Eve in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park, where Oberon, Titania and their faerie kingdom have set up court. But the Great Night celebrations do not go quite as planned. Unable to deal with the all-too human feelings of grief and loss that have assailed her on the death of their adopted son and subsequent failing of her marriage, Titania sets free an ancient menace that threatens to bring an end mortal and immortal life alike.

It is on this night, just after dark, that Henry, Molly, and Will separately walk into that same park and find themselves utterly lost. Like Titania, they are each struggling (and failing) to overcome romantic losses. Henry, kidnapped as a child and now paralysingly obsessive-compulsive has driven away Bobby, the one person he’s ever loved . Molly is rebelling against her extreme upbringing but unable to escape the suicide of her boyfriend nearly two years earlier. And Will, a tree-surgeon, is desperate to patch up his relationship with Carolina, who discovered his infidelity and left him. All three have encountered magic before, but nothing like the faerie magic they are about to be caught up in tonight.

Such an introduction inevitably sounds bleaker than the book is. The Great Night is often laugh-out-loud funny and utterly absurd. Puck is given a new, ominous role, and the Mechanicals make an appearance in the guise of a group of homeless people who believe they can bring down the mayor and stop his evil plot by staging a musical production of Soylent Green.

Simultaneously, The Great Night is existentially mundane and magically extravagant. It charts the luminal space between dreams and reality. Through magic, Adrian presents the profound realities of mortal life, through humour, the unremitting sadness of loss. It is a book of opposites, “at the same time one of the strangest and most ordinary things” I’ve ever read.

Chris Adrian, named in the New Yorker as one of the 20 best writers under 40 years old, certainly lives up to that billing. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and now a fellow in paediatric haematology-ongcology, he marries literary craft with a visceral understanding of the human body to create one of the most explicitly embodied books I’ve read. The Great Night is psychologically explicit, mortally explicit, sexually explicit. His prose is unassuming and easy-to-read, a coherent medium through which to convey his unique view of the world.

I read The Great Night on the back of two stunning reviews in The Independent and The Guardian. It is a beautiful book to hold and to read and the praise on the jacket fizzes and pops with effervescent exuberance*. Yet just as there are those who think that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is about as comic as experimental pile surgery, The Great Night is likely to divide opinion. From such a brilliant premise, the plot sometimes gets indulgently lost and the back stories of Henry, Molly and Will can feel a little forced at times. For some, it will feel a little too like a male sex fantasy in faerie land.

But for all who hate The Great Night there will be those who love it. I’ll certainly be exploring Chris Adrian’s back catalogue further and looking forward to future books from him. This is an intriguing work from a writer who, in a world where too many books feel like they were written from a ‘how to write fiction’ guide, offers a fresh view of the world. He’s a storyteller with an almost unbounded imagination, and he routes his story in the very human lives of his characters. This is exactly what modern fiction can and should be.

The Great Night was published in the UK by Granta Books. Edition shown is the hardback edition, published 2011. ISBN: 9781847081865, 292pp
* The praise listed on the back of The Great Night is some of the most effusive I have ever encountered:

‘Chris Adrian's life is a dedicated exploration of the things that matter most, and his writing is his companion and interlocutor, his guide and interpreter, as he travels a landscape not before seen by other eyes. And every report he makes of that world enriches and enlarges our own sense of the world.’
Marilynne Robinson

‘Chris Adrian is truly brilliant. I simply believe him to be a person with a unique way of processing the world around him and the ability to communicate that vision back to us in what is often a startlingly beautiful manner.’
Nathan Englander

‘Chris Adrian is a novelist, a doctor, a philosopher, a literary explorer, the humble clear-eyed prophet of our time. He is an eloquent anatomist of loss, naming and labeling the bones and sinews of grief; he is a comedian dressed in sackcloth, a winking Virgil leading us through the circles of our own earthly hell. But he is ultimately a healer; the genius of his writing lies in its compassion, its ability to make what is broken whole again. To read him is to be understood: to know you are not alone in your misery, your self-doubt, your sins of pride, your wild joys, your insomnia, your madness, your desire.’
Julie Orringer

More on The Great Night:
Patrick Ness in The Guardian
The Independent
The New York Times
Review and Interview with Chris Adrian in the Wall Street Journal
Listen to Chris Adrian talk about The Great Night on NPR

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