Joining a distinguished list of predecessors who’ve re-imagined Shakespeare’s work, in his third novel, Chris Adrian, one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40,” offers a contemporary version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. It’s a lively, bawdy and at times perplexing tale that pulsates between fantasy and reality to explore the themes of loss and grief.
On a mid-June night, the faerie queen Titania, deep in mourning for a son she had seized from the human world who’s now dead of leukemia, and abandoned by her husband Oberon, impulsively frees the trickster Puck. In the fog-shrouded park where he and his companions work their mischief, they come upon three troubled humans searching for a party none is eager to attend: Henry, a pediatrician whose lover, Bobby, has left him; Will, an arborist, similarly haunted by his girlfriend Carolina’s decision to end their relationship; and Molly, a former divinity student whose boyfriend has committed suicide. All of these characters are connected in unexpected and meaningful ways. Contributing to the chaos and complication is the presence of a group of homeless people rehearsing a production of Soylent Green, intending to dramatize their belief that the mayor of San Francisco is attempting to reduce their population by turning them into food. It’s a complex stew, ensuring a night that “would end in joy or ruin.”
Over the course of the evening the human and faerie worlds collide in a series of tragicomic encounters. Into that account, Adrian patiently stitches the moving backstories of his human protagonists, exploring the tragedies that have upended their lives, forcing them to confront their own losses and the universality of human suffering.
The novel’s episodic, at times frustratingly obscure plot is balanced by the strength of Adrian’s imagination, rendering the world of the faeries and the realm they cohabit with the humans for this single night in wild, often fantastic detail. Think of The Great Night as a triptych painted by Hieronymus Bosch: riotous, occasionally inscrutable and yet consistently stimulating.