So. Shakespeare, right? So many remakes of this guy, it's crazy. And I love Shakespeare, I do, and it's sad that most high school English classes suck all the fun out of Shakespeare, like some sort of fun-sucking vampire. I'd be sitting there like hey he is talking about sex, you guys! and everyone else is falling asleep.
But, anyway. I really, really wanted to Chris Adrian's The Great Night. I put it down. I picked it up again. I opened pages at random. I paced in circles around the table, and then I pulled my hair into funny bunches and screamed "ALIENS!" because when I need to reset my brain, that usually works.
The Great Night should be great. It should be! It's a retelling of A Midsummer's Night's Dream, which how can that not be great? It's set in San Francisco! The premise is really compelling! And although parts of the book work, and work really well, it ultimately collapses under its own weight and turns into a pile of mush.
The Great Night is set in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury District. Three sad humans are stumbling across Buena Vista Park, all on the way to the same party: Henry, a fastidious man whose obsessive-compulsive behavior drove away his boyfriend and great love; Molly, whose boyfriend's suicide has undone her; and Will, who has just been dumped.
Meanwhile, a grieving Titania and her sulky retinue are half-heartedly attempting to celebrate Midsummer's Night. Titania adopted son, a human child snatched by her fairy attendants, recently died from leukemia, and Titania has become mired in depression. Her husband, Oberon, has left her and decamped for the human streets of San Francisco, and Titania is too hurt and stubborn to find him.
On the Great Night, Titania calls Puck (here, not the impish trickster, but an enslaved force that threatens fairies and humankind alike) and frees him, although she knows that Puck is the only force powerful enough to kill her.
Meanwhile, the three beknighted mortals end up in the middle of the ensuing fairy war, although being fairies, it more resembles a dinner party gone horribly awry, with fleeing in terror getting repeatedly interrupted in favor of carousing. In the meantime, a group of homeless people who are rehearsing a staging of "Soylent Green" stand in for the role of Shakespeare's band of merry actors.
As the narrative unspools, Adrian explores the connection of the three hapless mortals: Henry, a pediatric oncologist who attended Titania's beloved Boy as he fought leukemia, is a former changeling himself, but his forgotten childhood under the hill has left him confused, emotionally stunted, and damaged. Molly's dead boyfriend, Ryan, is also a changeling, and the sibling of the woman who has left Will and broken his heart.
The book's strongest passages are, without question, the pages that explore Titania and Oberon's relationship with their beloved Boy as he weakens and how it strains their marriage. Although Titania and Oberon are immortal, Titania's affection for her human child and the child's death levels her. She's the most human in her grief, lashing out at Oberon and the Boy's doctors in fury, and the vignette of the unraveling of their marriage is as affecting as if they were real.
Adrian handles the interweaving narratives with less aplomb, as he skips back and forth between the Great Night celebration, Puck's pursuit of the fairies, and the backstory of the three human visitors to under-the-hill. Puck should be the scariest of the fairieworld inhabitants, but Adrian fumbles, and Puck isn't particularly frightening (Neil Gaiman's version in the Sandman world has more teeth, literally and figuratively speaking). The end of Great Night is a floppy muddle. Without the narrative backbone of the original Midsummer's Night's Dream, Great Night can't stand on its own.