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Messing with Shakespeare is hardly anything new. His universal themes can come alive and reveal even deeper depths when applied to a different place or time. Also, how many times do you want to watch Romeo climb up a trellis in Elizabethan pantaloons? From the serious-minded (Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth) to the ill-conceived (Julia Stiles in O) to the whackadoo (Hamlet 2), Shakespeare’s characters have wound up in all sorts of times and places.
Usually the attempts to mess with Shakespearian setting have to do with desperation to lure in jaded fans or new audiences that are uncomfortable with antequated speech. Someitmes you’ve gotta wonder if the producers were just getting high backstage. (“It’s Othello… in SPACE.”)*
For Chris Adrian, author of The Great Night, the choice seems much more personal.
The Great Night is, ostensibly, a retelling of A Midsummers’ Night’s Dream set in Buena Vista Park, modern San Francisco. Some actual characters, like Titania and Oberon, are there. Some stand-in characters appear for Lysander and Demetrius, but they’re not exact allegories. There’s sort of a play within a play and there’s sort of a love triangle, but it doesn’t match the original play point for point.
Instead, it takes an incident that’s mentioned offhand, the death of Titania’s pet human (aka her adopted child), and turns that into the catalyst. Grief-stricken, Titania casts Oberon off and in her efforts to bring him back, releases evil into the park where it hunts fairie and human alike. These humans’ lives are intertwined, though they don’t know it yet, and the majority of the novel is spent on their backstories, how they came to be in the park that night and why they’re so damn miserable.
And they are miserable in a way that hurts. Like his previous novel, The Children’s Hospital, there are some wrenching descriptions of the slow march to death that seem inevitable and shocking at the exact same time. He writes like someone with a bachelor’s in English, masters in Theology, and a medical degree (which, by the way, he has). He writes about what’s happening in the hospital bed and what will happen after, and he writes it WELL.
Adrian’s work tends towards the surreal (The Children’s Hospital is about the next Biblical flood. Angels appear.), so Midsummers’ is a good fit. However he keeps all the fantastic elements are grounded in reality. In The Great Night, the humans tend to deal with the supernatural with grim-faced determination. It’s a point of view that seems honed from too much experience witnessing seemingly pointless death. Adrian’s medical training, especially in pediatrics, is probably no small influence.
This is a monster story and the characters are in peril, but the real momentum, the hook, is the mystery of how the humans are connected to each other. Hints are dropped throughout until a giant info-dump near the end of the novel that finally explains everything. That such an elongated flashback does NOT bring the whole book to a grinding halt provides ample evidence of Adrian’s remarkable strength as a writer. He stays one step ahead of you, but only one; the reveal is so weird you’d never guess it. When it comes the whole story finally fits together in a supremely satisfying way.
That isn’t to say it ends neatly. While Shakespeare paired off all his heroes by morning, Adrian’s characters don’t all live to see the dawn. Adrian’s reality is darker than the Bard’s and resolves to a far more natural conclusion. Shakespeare’s fairies casually mention a human pet for Titania, Adrian probes deeper. Where did the human come from? What becomes of any family left behind? What happens when it grows up? The world-weary tone and the fantastic elements are always at play, and give the book a radioactive glow. The characters are pretty but they’re slowly rotting.
I said that the book feels personal. I have zero hard evidence, but out of three full-length novels (Children’s Hospital and Gob’s Grief), three deal directly with the loss of a brother and/or children. That, to me, seems to hint at more than a passing plot point. In The Great Night, instead of approaching the Midsummers’ Night’s Dream and thinking about how to freshen it up, Adrian seems to cope with his personal life through the lens of the play. It makes for a wonderful novel.
I don’t know what, if anything, has happened to him to inspire such riveting work. I’m just sure I don’t envy it.
*(“Moor is really code for ‘alien.’ Othello was totally an alien!” “Right on.”)