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, beginning with his first 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 moral questions at all. Perhaps, 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.
Read an Excerpt
One night in the middle of June, three brokenhearted people walked into Buena Vista Park at nearly the same time, just after dark. One came from the north, out of the Haight, another climbed up out of the Castro from the east, and the last came from the west, out of the Sunset and Cole Valley: this one was already going in the wrong direction, and shortly all three of them would be lost. They were going to a seasonal party of the famously convivial Jordan Sasscock, at his home at 88 Buena Vista West (Molly was headed, mistakenly, to 88 Buena Vista East). Jordan's parties were as famously convivial as he was, and the invitations, while prized, were not exactly exclusive, because it was in the nature of his conviviality never to leave anyone feeling left out. There were swarms of people who trudged up the hill in the middle of every summer to drink Jordan's beer and wine and stand on his roof and dance in his expansive garden. He was a lowly resident at the hospital nearby, but his grandmother had died five years before when he was still a medical student, leaving him the house and the garden and all the treasures and garbage she had stuffed intoit in the eighty-nine years she had lived there: ruined priceless furniture and money under the mattresses and case after case of fancy cat food in the basement, and fifteen cats, only five of which were still alive on the night of the party, because, affable as he was, Jordan didn't much like cats, and he didn't take very good care of them.
Henry, like the other two people entering the park, was late. He was not even sure he was entirely invited, though it seemed that everyone at the hospital was invited, just as he wasn't sure that Jordan Sasscock liked him, though Jordan seemed to like everybody. They happened to be working together that month on the Pediatric Oncology service, and here and there a flail or a mistake had occurred that was almost certainly Henry's fault, and yet somehow the blame had spilled onto Jordan. Henry generally sought out blame, being comfortable with it, having been blamed for all sorts of things his whole life long and having accepted responsibility for all sorts of crimes he had only barely committed, at ease in the habit of culpability because he had an abiding suspicion, fostered by an unusual amount of blank history in his childhood, that he had once done something unforgivably wrong.
Three months before, he would have stayed home on a night like this, in the context of an invitation like this, entertaining potential scenes of confrontation or humiliation or trickery: Jordan telling him quietly to leave, or asking from the middle of a group of encircling unfriendly faces if he could see Henry's invitation; didn't Henry know an invitation was necessary to come to the party? But Henry had turned over a new leaf since his lover had issued his latest and most final rejection. He was spending less time imprisoned in imaginary scenarios, and through no recognizable effort of his own he was becoming, day by day, a better man. It was a shame, really, that all the faults and neuroses and quite considerable pathologies that hadhelped spoil the relationship were finally lifting from him just in time to be too late. The timing was ridiculous, and it added significantly to his heartbreak that it had done no good to demonstrate his renaissance to Bobby, who had been out to San Francisco for a month to work (and expressly not, he said, to visit Henry). Bobby had issued his most detailed, hope-abolishing rejection on the day before he left, and they hadn't talked in all the months that had passed since then. It was a dismal discovery: there were so many different intensities of rejection, and every successive "no!" could feel worse and worse. It had put Henry into a state of what felt like perpetual agony, and yet he wasn't exactly depressed, or at least he was depressed in a totally different way than he had been all his remembered life up until then. Dull, quotidian misery had been replaced with a brighter sort of suffering, and he felt more connected to everything and everyone around him than he had for twenty years. Each day for weeks he had given up some neurotic quirk: excessive hand washing; fear of doorknobs and the ground; a reluctance to touch the sick children of smokers; fear, most recently, that having a single drink of alcohol would transform him into a monster. "People like us shouldn't drink," his mother had told him, over and over and over, "because of the horrible things that have happened to us." With one hand she would mime throwing back a shot and with the other draw an imaginary knife across her throat. "Ack," she'd say, as her invisible lifeblood poured out. "Instant addict." Never mind all that. He had already decided to drink a lot of beer at the party.
There remained, of course, the fear of the park itself, part and parcel of his old habits of bleaching and hand-washing and hand-wringing. The place had used to make his skin crawl, and the whole city and even the state around the park had made him uneasy even before it became intolerable to imagine being there. He had lived in San Francisco as a regularchild, and then as a child abducted, and those unremembered years between the ages of nine and thirteen had cast a pall over the whole city. The story, as little of it as he had reconstructed, was as weird as the behaviors he had manifested when it could not be contained any longer in unmemory, and the strangeness of it had attracted Bobby in the beginning, as much as it had ultimately tortured him and driven him away in the end.
It's just a park, he thought, standing at the entrance, just a collection of trees and bushes artfully planted to approximate a wild wood on a hill. The worst thing about it, in fact, was that Bobby had brought him here to tell him to fuck off forever, to leave him alone for all eternity, to never bother him again, and part of Henry was still sensitive to the imagined residues of physical and emotional trauma, though he wasn't controlled anymore by his aversion to them. He would take a break and sit on the very fucking bench where Bobby had said goodbye, just for the sake of doing it, and he would consider how atrociously sad and ridiculous the collapse of their relationship was, how all the pieces of an extraordinary partnership had come together in just the wrong way. Then he would set the timer on his phone and spend a full five minutes demonstrating to the uncaring world and his unwatching lover that he was not who he had been.
Henry stepped off Haight Street onto the first step up into the park, thinking again that his was as magical a transformation as to have woken up one day to find he had become a pony. And he had a little daydream about Henry the pony, because even though he had been liberated from the obsessive prisons of his imagination, he was still an inveterate daydreamer. He was sure it must be an escaping wisp of the daydream when he thought he saw a face in the stone wall beside the step and thought he heard a voice say, very clearly, "Poodle!" He stopped and peered at the wall; it was gettingdark, so when he stared all he could see was a rough suggestion of the texture on the stone. He shook his head and did a little pony step and kept walking into the park.
A little farther north, Will was trying to find a way in. He had come up the steps from Waller Street, expecting to find another staircase, but there was only the sidewalk that encircled the park and then some not very passable-looking brush separating him from a path that wound up the side of the hill. He thought he saw someone moving on the other side of the brush and took that for an indication that there was an entrance nearby. He was frustrated and late and anxious about entering the park so late in the day, because the chances of getting afflicted with an uninvited grope rose exponentially if you went in after sunset. He lived in the Castro in a sea of homosexuals, and loved his neighborhood and his neighbors, and judged no one. If anything, he felt a kinship with those lonely souls drifting through the muffling darkness, rubbing up against one another, accidentally burning one another with the tips of cigarettes. It wasn't so long ago that he had been engaged in parallel pursuits. He had rooted in a different trough, but he knew what it was like to be lonely and to commit intimate acts that only made you feel lonelier still. The horror of it, and what made him a sorrier sort than even the most hideous troll in the park, was the fact that he had done such things while in the company of the most wonderful woman on earth. He had burrowed all through that relationship, making slimy tunnels, and at last it collapsed when his deceit and his unwarranted unhappiness were revealed.
Will sighed, and realized he had been standing on the sidewalk not moving at all, distracted by unprofitable thoughts, and it was getting very dark. He looked at his watch and became anxious again at how late he was. Jordan Sasscock was friends with both Will and Carolina, the only mutual friendhe hadn't lost when she left him, and one of the only people in his whole circle of friends who sort of sympathized with him, both disgusted and understanding in a way that made Will think that at least one person in the world had forgiven him for what he had done to her. It was entirely possibleJordan had hinted at itthat Carolina would be there tonight. And Jordan had hinted further that she knew Will might be there too. It was the closest thing Will had had to good news in a year.
He put his head down and pushed through the bushes, slipping and trying to catch his balance on a handful of leaves. With a little more scrabbling he was up the rise and on the path. He heard a whisper, very distinct, as he was wiping his hands off on his pants, that said something like "Poodle?"
"No ... get away!" Will shouted, assuming it was someone asking him if he wanted to poodle, and he was ashamed even to know what that might mean. He hurried along the path, walking up the side of the hill toward a place where he was almost totally certain there was a road that cut straight across the park and led directly to Jordan's block.
On the other side, and farther up the hill, Molly, having wandered a little around Ashbury Heights in the fog, came at last to the high western entrance to the park. Had she known that she was going in the wrong direction and that she had already passed within a few blocks of Jordan's house, she might have given up entirely on going to the party. She already felt painfully self-consciousshe felt that way whenever she left her house, and imagined everywhere she went that people whispered about her, saying, "There goes that poor girl" and "The poor thing!"and lately she had learned to avoid all sorts of lesser disasters and heartbreaks and misfortunes by recognizing them from far away; getting lost on the way to a party you didn't want to attend, on the way to a date you wereneither interested in nor ready forthat was a sign from somebody that you really should turn around and go home.
She sat down on the curb and put her hands over her faceit felt like she'd spent most of the last eighteen months in this pose but lately she did it really more because it helped her gather her thoughts than because it was a good position in which to cryand considered things for a moment. She could feel her couch pulling at her from way back at Sixteenth and Judah, but she knew she'd come too far, in both her own and other people's estimation, to go back now. If she didn't show up, people would think she still couldn't move on from Ryan's death. The truth was, she couldn't, but she didn't want that to be obvious to the gossipy old ladies who seemed to live in the hearts of all her friends. "Everything is not ruined," she said, repeating a mantra that had started off as a joke, pulled from a ridiculous guide to getting over the suicide of your boyfriend. The guide had been sent to her by a distant aunt, part of the small subsection of her extended family not crazy for Jesus, and though it was less ridiculous than any of the countless Christian manuals of survivorship that flocked her way, Molly had still chortled over its obvious and unconvincing lessons in the first few months: Everything is not ruined; it wasn't your fault; you will be loved again someday by a nonsuicidal person. But as she degraded over the months it became her secular Bible and her best friend, and once she even dreamed sexually about the author, a great big lesbian with tight gray poodle hair, swathed in purple from head to toe in her gigantic back-cover author photo.
Her date tonight was with Jordan Sasscock himself. The honor of this was lost on her, as she barely knew him. He had come into her shop to visit one of her coworkers, and then had returned again and again, buying increasingly pricey arrangements of flowers and then increasingly pricey design pieces, aprocess that culminated in the purchase of an exorbitantly expensive Scandinavian foam couch cunningly crafted to look just like a boulder. "I've been looking for one of these for years!" he said, lounging in it. He looked very appealing with his hands behind his head; the swell of his biceps pleasingly echoed in the contours of the fake rock.
Everyone else in the shopboys and girls alikeswooned over him, but Molly hardly noticed him at first, and for the longest time assumed he just really liked flowers and good design, until he finally asked her out. That was a strange moment. Time seemed to stop and everything seemed to tremble, not just the flowers but the colors in them, the air itself, and the porcelain bells above the door, which seemed just on the verge of ringing, everything so very gently disturbed. "I'm having a little get-together this Thursday and I want you to be my guest of honor," he had said. When she only stared, marveling at the odd ripple that stole over his face and body, he added, "Or you could just show up at some point. You don't have to be guest of honor, if that's too much responsibility. Anyway, think about it." He told her his address, which she misremembered immediately.
"Sure," she said, without thinking about it at all. "See you there." She had packaged up his latest purchase, a transparent piece of china with a hand-painted rim of little blue flowers, and now she handed it to him, not smiling. Sensing perhaps that to do so would push his luck, he didn't say anything else but just smiled and nodded. When he left, her boss let out a shriek of delight. "You've got a date with Jordan Sasscock!" she shouted, grabbing Molly's shoulders and jumping up and down like a fool.
"It's not a date," Molly said. "I'm just going to his party." It would be another hour before she fully regretted the decision to say yes, and then it would seem like the stupidest thingshe'd ever done. She spent the next few days telling herself that she wasn't ready for this, and that she was, and that she wasn't. Now, sitting on the curb with her face in her hands, she felt sure that she wasn't, and only because she was still in love with Ryanor still in something with him. The feeling that dominated her day and night was not the same lovely invigorating obsession she had felt every day before his death, when he seemed like the very beginning and end of her perception, his mind and body and spirit each an occasion of persistent joy. Ever since she had come home to find him hanging by his neck from a tree in their garden, only the character of the feeling had changed, not the strength of it. She had married him the instant she met him, and now he still attracted and owned all her parts.
"Jordan Sasscock!" she shouted, lifting her face out of her hands, and somehow that made her feel better. She was sure a voice answered her, but instead of saying, "Shut up!" or "Yes, dear?" it said, very quietly, "Poodle."
"Leave me alone!" she said, not sure whether she was addressing Jordan or Ryan or sardonic voices that, while they weren't exactly hallucinations, weren't voices that anyone but she could hear. "It's just a party," she said to herself, when nothing and no one else answered her. "What's the worst thing that could happen?" She got up, not considering the worst things, turned around, and found she had missed the entrance in a shadow and had sat down very close to it. She put her arms around herself and bowed her head and walked into the park.
THE GREAT NIGHT. Copyright © 2011 by Chris Adrian. All rights reserved. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.