The Great Night

Recently, after reading an essay on two very obscure English war poets by Anthony Daniels, a former prison doctor and, among other things, a literary critic of unusual sensibility, I was driving along my suburban mother commute and playing a sort of solitaire mental parlor game: a list of famous fiction writers who were also doctors—I had Rabelais, Maugham, Conan Doyle, Chekhov, Celine. Later it occurred to me to check Wikipedia, and sure enough there's a very helpful entry for "Physician writer." I'd forgotten Smollett and Bulgakov and William Carlos Williams (a bit embarrassing there); some were a bit of a stretch (Keats and de Musset? Do med-school dropouts count?)—but I was startled to see no mention of one of the most notable recent physician novelists, Chris Adrian.


Chris Adrian is a pediatric oncologist—treating children with cancer—and his specialty is very evident in all his work, and particularly in his 2006 novel, The Children's Hospital: matters of life and death, especially death too early in life, and the hallucinatory visions born of sleeplessness from panicky parents and frustrated doctors. Other parts of Adrian's life—including the death of his older brother in a car accident, his airline pilot father and alcoholic mother, his studies in divinity school—also recur in his work. Oh, and he's on record as really liking stories with magic ponies in them.


In The Great Night, Adrian's retelling of Midsummer Night's Dream in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco, we have the seeds of a familiar story: a quarrel between Oberon and Titania over a mortal boy, hapless lovelorn mortals wandering willy-nilly, some rude mechanicals putting on a play, Titania's strange passion for a grotesque. As these facts pass through his imagination, they turn into something rich and strange: surreal, contemplative, ornate, and crude. His urban forest, lush and rank, is inhabited by all kinds of hybrids: brokenhearted heterosexuals and homosexuals, fairyfolk and homeless people, walking phalluses and flying vaginas, stray dogs, wild boys, Puck on the loose, bicycles, and even a magic pony.


It's a wild ride—I found it almost viscerally thrilling, especially the experience of moving through his prose as it crackles and purrs. But while I don't at all intend to disparage the book's imaginative acrobatics and arabesques by saying this, the most brilliant and profound reimagining in Adrian's vision isn't the way he magics the humans but the way he humanifies Shakespeare's fairies.


It's your basic immortal dilemma. Whether Greek god or English fairy, if you live outside the constraints of time, you face no worries about life and death, perhaps no mortal questions at all. Maybe, for immortals, change—permanent change, not merely the passing of one entertainment for another—is the final novelty? Having change happen to you, say, by falling into love, is a human experience new to Titania. But it happens to her through Oberon's present of a small human boy:

The child grew, and changed, and became ever more delightful to her, and she imagined that they could go on forever like that. . . . Maybe it would have been better if he had stayed her favorite thing—a toy and not a son. . . . But one evening the boy ran back to her, and climbed upon her throne, and put his face to her breast, and sighed a word at her, molly or moony or middlebury—she still didn't know what it was exactly. But it was close enough to mommy to ruin everything.

Wedded to love is death. Adrian's Oberon and Titania and their beloved boy end up in a leukemia ward with Doctors Beadle and Blork. There the fairies run against the intransigence of nature for humans: you want change but can't do anything about it. It would have been easy if the boy had merely been a "broken toy," but, as Titania discovers, human love of whatever variety is a terrible enchantment.


Titania's love for her boy changes her perception of what is available to her—and what is not: "The mortals all looked equally boring to her, equally plain, and equal wastes of her time. She had never thought before of anything as a waste of time; she had an eternity of time to spend and could afford to be profligate with it." Her love might, ultimately, lead her to a realization plenty difficult for humans too; that other people besides yourself, people perhaps plain, or old, or poor, or clumsy, feel deep love and howl for its loss.


Oberon is a fainter character—as is the intriguingly named but missing master of the human revels, Jordan Sasscock. (As a well-trained Dickens reader, I was plumping for Dr. Sasscock to turn out to be Oberon, but then I remembered he appears briefly in The Children's Hospital, so apparently not.) The magicked humans, Molly, Henry, and Will, have been left out of this review, but through no lack of charm of their own in their Dickensianly interlaced plots.


Parts of the novel left me bewildered, especially as I tried to work out the implications of the many references to the culty film Soylent Green. The homeless crazies in Buena Vista Park put on a musical version that culminates with the fabulous song "People who eat people are the loneliest people in the world!" But surely bewilderment is a handmaiden of enchantment. Reading The Great Night was an extraordinary experience. When I finished it, I started it over again.


[Editor's Note:  An earlier version of this review incorrectly cited The Children's Hospital as Chris Adrian's first novel.]

by halegraphics on ‎04-27-2011 08:24 AM

Actually, The Children's Hospital was Adrian's second novel.  The first was the Civil War-era historical novel, Gob's Grief.

by Bill_Tipper on ‎04-28-2011 01:51 PM

halegraphics, you're quite right.  The article has been corrected.

July 28: Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin eloped on this day in 1814.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.


When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).