Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Better Night

I recently realized that, despite being a Shakespeare nerd, I've never seen nor read one of his most famous plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream. That's kind of a funny oversight. I guess it was never assigned in either of the two high school or the three college classes (including "Shakespeare") where I would have had the opportunity of being forced to read it. I do sometimes pick up his plays on my own, but his comedies are my least favorite part of the oeuvre, so I'd re-read King Lear before picking up Midsummer.

Of course, anyone who's even vaguely tied into the culture will already know the most salient aspects of this play: fairies, Puck, enchantment. I was therefore intrigued when I heard of a new novel, "The Great Night" by Chris Adrian, that re-tells the story of Midsummer and sets it in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco. Intriguing! I love San Francisco, and I love Shakespeare, and I'd finally have a chance to experience one interpretation of the play. Sold!

By a serendipitous coincidence, this is also the year that my friend Erik's Shady Shakespeare troupe decided to perform A Midsummer Night's Dream as part of their annual summer Shakespeare in the Park program. As is our tradition, a bunch of former co-workers made the journey to Sanborn to have a picnic, drink some wine, and enjoy the Bard under the redwoods.

I was surprised by just how much I enjoyed it. Shakespeare is always great, but I am usually underwhelmed by his comedies. It isn't their fault - who would have thought that these jokes would still be told 400 years after they were written? - and it's impressive that they hold up as well as they do (have you tried watching old sitcoms from the mid-century?). This was a blast, though. The relationship stuff at the beginning doesn't occupy too much time, just sets the stage for future action. Once in the woods, Shakespeare's talent for cross-gender insults kicks into high gear as the lovers variously woo and abuse one another. The highlight of the play for me, though, is the Rustic Players, a sort of B-plot that takes over the play. They are, well, very untalented actors, led by a bad playwriter, and starring a deliciously pompous and vain leading man. Throughout Midsummer we see them rehearse, and squabble, and generally be unintentionally hilarious.

The main plot is the magical one, driven by Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of fairieland. Oberon is intrigued by the love triangle of mortals, and peeved at Titania's affection for a boy, so he enlists Puck to meddle in both affairs. Mistakes are made, hijinks ensue, and soon a Bottom with the head of a donkey is snuggling Titania. Oberon and Puck eventually set everything right, young lovers are married off, and we're all treated to the stupendous performance of the rustic players. For me, that final scene was the absolute highlight of the whole play - parody is great, and Shakespeare did a great job at essentially mocking the melodrama of plays like his own Romeo & Juliet.

So, that was awesome. I was glad to have that performance freshly in my mind as I finished reading The Great Night. TGN definitely takes a lot of inspiration and several characters from MND, but it's not at all a retelling.


The most important change here is probably in the nature of the fairies. Adrian uses many of the same fairie names as Shakespeare, most notably Titania and Puck, and they occupy loosely the same roles, but these fairies are kind of scary. These are the OLD fairies - if you've read any of Neil Gaiman's fairies, or Terry Pratchett's "Lords and Ladies," you'll be familiar with the concept. These are the beings feared by the old English, magical beings of great power and no morals, who would steal away children, cast glamours over mortals, and generally torment people for their own pleasure. Sure, they might occasionally help someone, but only when it amuses them to do so.

The fairies live in Buena Vista Park, under the hill. For the most part they isolate themselves from humans, but when the fancy strikes, they will venture out into the city to mess with mortals. Occasionally, they will steal back a human child, leaving a changeling in its place, and amuse themselves with it for a while until it starts to grow too old, at which time they send it back.

The action of the story takes place on, well, Midsummer Night. The main action covers a period of several hours, but most of the book is actually devoted to flashbacks, where you learn about the recent tragedy which had struck the fairie leaders, and the sources of grief in the humans' lives. These are scattered throughout the book, and not told in any chronological order, so there's an interesting kaleidoscopic effect, particularly among the humans, as you discover new aspects of each character. The most tragic is probably Henry, a gay man with OCD who had broken up with his boyfriend a year ago and still hasn't been able to get over him. Casting farther back, we learn about his difficult childhood with a melodramatic mother; eventually, he remembers the original source of his sadness.

The hardest character to track is probably Molly, just because the snapshots we get of her life seem so disparate. We first meet her as a sweet and shy shopgirl who lives a quiet life and is recovering from the suicide of her boyfriend. Later, though, we learn that she previously was practicing as a mainline Protestant clergywoman. And still later, we find out about her childhood, performing in a Brady Bunch-ish fundamentalist Christian family/band. It's all interesting stuff, but for me didn't cohere quite as strongly as Henry's story.

Will is the most likeable, and probably the least interesting, of the mortals. He's a tree specialist and aspiring author who cheated on his girlfriend Christine and got dumped.


Only later in the book do we discover that all three mortals, who had never previously met each other, are all connected. I don't think that they every fully realize it, either.  Molly's dead boyfriend Ryan had been captured by the fairies as a boy. Henry was taken by Puck as his own plaything. After he was cast out by Titania, Henry met with Ryan and a group of other boys under the protection of Mike, the oldest of all those to have been captured. Henry had managed to leave with an acorn, which quickly grew into a fairie tree. However, Henry later notified the police of the house, and all the boys were scattered and gradually forgot about what had happened to them.

Years later, Ryan grew up and bought the house. He was very sad, because he'd never be able to return to fairieland. Molly helped, but she couldn't replace what he'd lost, and he eventually killed himself.

Then, Ryan's sister Christine inherited the house. By now the tree was dying; it wasn't meant to exist in in the mortal land, and it no longer had even the remnants of fairie magic to help its growth. Will and Christine's love helped give the tree some more life.

The large tragedy hanging behind everything is the fairie one. Somehow, Titania and Oberon managed to actually feel true affection for one of their stolen children, The Boy. They don't just amuse themselves, but actually love him. Sadly, The Boy starts dying of leukemia, and while the fairies' magic is powerful, they've never had any experience with human illness or death. The Boy is sent to UCSF Medical, where Henry is the attending physician. He dies over a period of months. Grief-stricken, Titania and Oberon retreat under the hill; eventually, Titania drives Oberon away, and then regrets it. Desperate to bring him back, she finally unleashes Puck, who used to be known as The Beast, one of the most dangerous fairies ever. Puck is ready and capable of destroying the whole world, but Oberon's residual magic leaves him trapped in Buena Vista, along with the mortals who are wandering through on their way to a house party in the Upper Haight. So, everyone's grief comes to a head, and the big question is whether Puck will be stopped.

Hands-down, my favorite part of this book was Adrian's reinterpretation of the Rustic Players. Here, it's a group of homeless people who are putting on a musical based on the movie Soylent Green. Throughout the novel we catch snatches of them blocking out the dance  numbers, rehearsing the songs, rewriting the script, and doing everything they can to make it as powerful as possible. In the book's climax, Titania (who, in a nod to the original play, has been cursed by Puck to love Huff, the bum who started writing the musical) lends her magic to the play, and all the fairies join in, transforming it into a resonant cultural event. "People... people who eat people... are the loneliest people in the world!"


Altogether, Great Night is an intriguing book. Adrian made a good choice in taking inspiration from Midsummer without staying too devoted to it. On balance, it's a much sadder and darker tale than Shakespeare's comedy, but it has some truly inspired funny parts, and the combination of setting and characters makes it a very memorable novel.

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