Thursday, October 11, 2012

Re-imagining Shakespeare's fairy kings and foolish mortals (Books - The Great Night by Chris Adrian)

It was Sam Ruddock's review that led me to Chris Adrian's The Great Night, an unrestrained hooplah of a novel that re-imagines Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, placing it in Buena Vista Park in contemporary San Francisco.  It's quite a ride.  Adrian is not only a well-regarded writer, he is also a fellow in pediatric hematology-oncology, which leads me to assume he has probably seen his share of painful loss and human suffering.  Interesting then that his characters Henry, Will, and Molly - the equivalent of the quartet of mortal young lovers in Shakespeare's play - have not only deeply suffered, but their lives are irrevocably driven by their suffering.  One could say they are completely lost in it as they are lost in the park.  The royal fairy couple, Tatiana and Oberon, are not broken up over a changeling in this take, they are grieving their child's death from leukemia.  The rude mechanicals of Shakespeare are translated to a group of homeless people rehearsing not the myth of Pyramus and  Thisbe but a politically-driven musical based on the film Soylent Green, no really.  Puck is still a big trouble-maker.  It is the unleashing of his power in the service of Tatiana and Oberon's unmitigated grief that drives the tangled, hallucinatory drama of healing that comprises the action of this novel.

Stories of healing have become a popular genre.  I suppose they could be seen as the preferable outcome for plots traversing the terrain of victimhood that are so popular nowadays.  And without giving much away, it is pretty clear from the outset that the troubled souls in The Great Night converge in fairyland to accomplish some righting of the wrongs done to their poor souls.  The strength of this rabidly imaginative novel is the way that familiar hallmarks of our lives stand-in for the components of Shakespeare's 16th-century fantasy while engaging the reader's interest in their own right.  The plot sounds a little whacky- it is.  Flagrantly so, but Adrian means the druggy whackiness to stand-in for the fantasy of the original.  People who come to hospitals to be treated for cancer, or in Adrian's case for treatment of their children's cancer, are completely without the power to affect the outcome.  They are, even in the case of the King and the Queen of the Fairies, in the grip of a spell.  In seeking a cure, they become subject to a second sort of spell.  With all the knowledge science has gained of the "emperor of all maladies," as the terrific book by Siddhartha Mukherjee called it, we still have a lot to learn about how to treat cancers humanely and successfully.  Most oncology feels a bit like sorcery in its crudeness and even cruelty, especially when it does not succeed, and it feels a bit like magic when it does. The beauty of Adrian's creation, I think, is the way its plot mirrors the dark magic of finding oneself powerless, whether that is through illness, mistreatment in childhood, or cruelty in love, and then to imagine what it is like to thrust oneself into a terrifying and otherwordly grip of a process that is one's only hope of survival, but is one from which one might never emerge.

The story of the homeless mechanicals is a bit ludicrous, and there are times Adrian's more psychedelic scenes include too many symbols and skid off the rails of credibility.  This is particularly true over the last forty pages.  But there were some wonderful laughs to be had and I found the strength of Adrian's imaginative ideas capable of filling this reader with empathy for people who feel lost in a dark and loveless world trying to survive against great odds.

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