Recently,after reading an essay on two very obscure English war poets by AnthonyDaniels, a former prison doctor and, among other things, a literary critic ofunusual sensibility, I was driving along my suburban mother commute and playinga sort of solitaire mental parlor game: a list of famous fiction writers whowere also doctors—I had Rabelais, Maugham, Conan Doyle, Chekhov, Celine. Laterit occurred to me to check Wikipedia, and sure enough there’s a very helpfulentry for “Physician writer.” I’d forgotten Smollett and Bulgakov andWilliam Carlos Williams (a bit embarrassing there); some were a bit of astretch (Keats and de Musset? Do med-school dropouts count?)—but I was startledto see no mention of one of the most notable recent physician novelists, ChrisAdrian.
Chris Adrian is apediatric oncologist—treating children with cancer—and his specialty is veryevident in all his work, and particularly in his 2006 novel, The Children’s Hospital: matters of life and death, especially death tooearly in life, and the hallucinatory visions born of sleeplessness from panickyparents and frustrated doctors. Other parts of Adrian’s life—including thedeath of his older brother in a car accident, his airline pilot father andalcoholic 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, wehave the seeds of a familiar story: a quarrel between Oberon and Titania over amortal boy, hapless lovelorn mortals wandering willy-nilly, some rudemechanicals putting on a play, Titania’s strange passion for a grotesque. Asthese facts pass through his imagination, they turn into something rich andstrange: surreal, contemplative, ornate, and crude. His urban forest, lush andrank, is inhabited by all kinds of hybrids: brokenhearted heterosexuals andhomosexuals, fairyfolk and homeless people, walking phalluses and flyingvaginas, stray dogs, wild boys, Puck on the loose, bicycles, and even a magicpony.
It’s a wild ride—I foundit almost viscerally thrilling, especially the experience of moving through hisprose as it crackles and purrs. But while I don’t at all intend to disparagethe book’s imaginative acrobatics and arabesques by saying this, the mostbrilliant and profound reimagining in Adrian’s vision isn’t the way he magicsthe humans but the way he humanifies Shakespeare’s fairies.
It’syour basic immortal dilemma. Whether Greek god or English fairy, if you liveoutside the constraints of time, you face no worries about life and death,perhaps no mortal questions at all. Maybe, for immortals, change—permanentchange, not merely the passing of one entertainment for another—is the finalnovelty? Having change happen to you, say, by falling into love, is a humanexperience new to Titania. But it happens to her through Oberon’s present of asmall human boy:
The child grew, andchanged, and became ever more delightful to her, and she imagined that theycould go on forever like that. . . . Maybe it would have been better if he hadstayed her favorite thing—a toy and not a son. . . . But one evening the boyran 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 wasclose enough to mommy to ruineverything.
Wedded to love is death. Adrian’sOberon and Titania and their beloved boy end up in a leukemia ward with DoctorsBeadle and Blork. There the fairies run against the intransigence of nature forhumans: you want change but can’t do anything about it. It would have been easyif 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 boychanges her perception of what is available to her—and what is not: “Themortals all looked equally boring to her, equally plain, and equal wastes ofher time. She had never thought before of anything as a waste of time; she hadan eternity of time to spend and could afford to be profligate with it.” Herlove might, ultimately, lead her to a realization plenty difficult for humanstoo; 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 faintercharacter—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 apparentlynot.) The magicked humans, Molly, Henry, and Will, have been left out of thisreview, but through no lack of charm of their own in their Dickensianlyinterlaced plots.
Parts of the novel left mebewildered, especially as I tried to work out the implications of the many referencesto the culty film Soylent Green. The homeless crazies in Buena Vista Park put on amusical version that culminates with the fabulous song “People who eatpeople are the loneliest people in the world!” But surely bewilderment isa handmaiden of enchantment. Reading TheGreat Night was an extraordinary experience. When I finished it, I startedit over again.
[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this review incorrectly cited The Children’s Hospital as Chris Adrian’s first novel.]