by Jesse Montgomery
Tis very true my grief lies all within
And these external manners of lament
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul.
It’s hard to ask for more concise yet substantial riff on the mysteries of grief and mourning than the one found above. As the lines attest, the outward effects of a tragedy stand in obscure relation to the source, and these “external manners,” regardless of their visibility, rarely match the “unseen grief” in magnitude or intensity. No stranger to the topic, Chris Adrian’s new novel The Great Night, is a lively dramatization of the grief that attends love and its loss and the complicated ties that bind the present to the past.
Not so much a retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as some sort of latter day sequel, the book feels like the final, explosive iteration of very old story that has finally exhausted itself. Complete with capricious fairies, confused lovers, countless transformations and a “play-within-a-play” – here a musical production of Soylent Green replaces the original’s The Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe – the story mirrors Shakespeare’s to an extent, but is largely its own beast with its own concerns.
Composed of several interlocking plots, and told from several different points of view, The Great Night follows the strange misadventure of a host of characters – mortal and non-mortal – who find themselves magically trapped in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park on Midsummer’s Eve in 2008. At the center of the story are three young depressives who, despite being to their knowledge unacquainted, find themselves lost in the park on the way to the same party: Molly, a divinity school dropout; Will, a tree-surgeon and writer; and Henry, an obsessive-compulsive physician described in an interior monologue as a “younger, poorer sort of Howard Hughes.” Each is in mourning for a lost lover and totally fucked up by mysteries in their past.
Unbeknownst to these innocent folks, big magic is at work in the park, which just happens to be home to all fairykind as well as their queen Titania. Deeply depressed on account of the death of her child and flight of her huband Oberon, Titania decides to free the fairy Puck from his centuries long bondage in the hopes that the imp’s release will a) shock Oberon into returning and/or b) destroy the Sun. Adrian’s Puck is more of a world-destroying-Loki type than a skim-the-cream-off-the-butter-Robin-Goodfellow, so with little delay, the fairies flee all hell breaks loose.
It’s an impressive, complex buildup that allows Adrian to quickly establish both the numerous disparate plots that we follow throughout the rest of the novel, and the assured, sly tone that characterizes it. This is a book where the real and the surreal coexist, but with no great degree of comfort and much of the comedy comes from Henry, Molly, and Will having to navigate the sometimes terrifying, always bizarre fairy world they have stumbled into. Hounded by Puck, who appears to each in the form of their greatest fears, the trio finds themselves pushing deeper into the park, and deeper into their own psyches.
As the already fractured story progresses its movement becomes increasingly recursive, flashing back to explore the characters’ pasts with increasing frequency. Initially these flashbacks focus on the recent traumas experienced by the main characters – a breakup, a suicide, the loss of a child; toward the end they reach deeper still, detailing childhood and first encounters with sexuality. Eventually, all of these flashbacks begin to coalesce into little mini-narratives of their own, and before you know it, Adrian is keeping an astounding number of balls in the air.
Given such a vibrant, nonlinear jumble of plots that seem to proliferate like crazy, Adrian’s ability to sustain a sense of momentum is striking and the central narrative moves forward enjoyably. Almost all of these backstories feel integral to the story as a whole and one – a long chapter describing a changeling’s death from cancer and Titania and Oberon’s time in the hospital ward – would work brilliantly as a standalone piece despite being a perfect distillation of the novel’s strengths and thematic concerns. That said, the most notable misstep in the novel is the jarring inclusion of one such flashback, an overlong, out of place vignette about Molly’s childhood which appears suddenly and never successfully meshes with the rest of the novel1. This sort of mistake is the exception, though and doesn’t cause too much harm to the novel’s sense of consistency.
In the end, the book seems to chart two different “plots,” to use the term loosely. The first takes place that Midsummer’s Eve in Buena Vista Park while the second takes place in some sort of shared headspace or collective past comprised of all those flashbacks and memories. In spite of its complexity and persistent temporal shifts the novel reads like a dream, and Adrian moves between past and present, magical and mortal with a rare confidence.
Put so, these two narrative trajectories line up nicely with our quote from Richard II. Namely, they explore the mysterious persistence of the past in the present. When Puck appears to a character in the form of a dead lover, for example, he quite literally represents the presence of a world of pain within that person and the unpurged grief that conditions their life. The novel builds toward an exorcism of these spirits, but it’s at its best while discovering them. In this process, Chris Adrian manages to create some of the most believable characters I’ve encountered since I finished Freedom last year, characters who seem fully realized the moment you encounter them on the page. Sad and strange, The Great Night is a rewarding tangle of a novel sustained by Adrian’s considerable stylistic command and emotional honesty.
1 I’m pretty sure this section of the novel was previously published as a short story titled “The Warm Fuzzies” in 20 Under 40: Stories from the New Yorker, which makes its whole-hog inclusion even more puzzling. My review is based of an advance reader copy, so who knows, maybe this section got whittled down for the final release?