Near the end of Chris Adrian's latest novel, one of the characters sends an important message to a former lover. As the character struggles to put what needs to be said into words, the messenger offers a suggestion: "There is magic!" Given the knowledge that the messenger in question is a squirrel, what follows ("Exactly! [the other] said. And then: No, no... there is love! That's what I mean to say. Or did he mean magic?") suggests something important about the book's fantastic elements. It isn't so much that the magic is only a metaphor as that it is, in the final analysis, no more of a marvel than anything else, a marker of the novel's membership in the great family of contemporary fiction that, awestruck at the wonder and horror of the world, can only describe those highs and lows, as if to say "Here's life! Ain't it a thing?"
In this loose retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream, there are in place of the two mismatched couples three "brokenhearted" people. Henry's obsessive-compulsive behavior has driven away Bobby; Will's initially unspecified failings ended his relationship with Carolina; Molly is, after two years, still reeling from Ryan's suicide. Also in San Francisco's Buena Vista Park this fateful night are a group of homeless who have conceived an unlikely explanation for a recent spate of disappearances, and concocted an even more unlikely show to put a stop to them. The rehearsal of these rude mechanicals is interrupted by faeries in flight from Puck, here no gentle trickster but a force of unstoppable violence. Puck has been released from his binding enchantments by a Titania so stricken with grief, for a changeling child who died of leukemia and for the missing Oberon, that she scarcely cares whether Puck's freedom will bring on Oberon's return, a violent massacre, or both.
All this would seem the setup a complicated and lively narrative, but in fact the depth and power of The Great Night is in the flashbacks that establish how Molly, Will, Henry, Titania, and Oberon have been brought to their present unhappiness. The titular night provides more of a linking novella, and not a terribly eventful one at that, although Adrian's faeries, charming and amusing without becoming intolerably cute, offer in a few lively passages. The flashbacks, some laced with fantasy, some not, often make for deeply moving short stories in and of themselves. (At least one has been separately published, an account of the changeling child's illness and death that juxtaposes Oberon and Titania's grandeur with the mortal misery of a children's cancer ward. The effect is alternately comic and heart-rending, with no excess sentimentality.) But, despite gradually-revealed connections among the protagonists, the flashbacks are too wide-ranging and scattered for the novel to achieve full coherence, and the chronological gaps between them mean that the human characters are too imperfectly seen to generate the level of involvement necessary for novelistic effect. The rude mechanicals in particular are diverting but poorly integrated into the larger concept, and the others are often sympathetic but rarely compelling.
What makes The Great Night a rewarding experience in spite of its larger failures is Adrian's gift for writing about human frailty and yearning in a way that makes the non-fantastic elements of the story as hauntingly magical as the faeries and their spells. From Molly's childhood in a Christian family band to Will's career as an arborist and short story writer to Henry's neurotic need to clean, the personal histories are uncommon, eccentric, but recognizable as versions of the near-universal desire for community, and of the guilt and shame brought on by failed attempts to connect. These small tragedies ring truer than the novel's flights of optimism, including the climax, which is strikingly described and makes a certain mythic sense, but leaves behind the logic of human motivations in a forced, abrupt manner. Magic may be wonderful, and love too, but this vision never becomes quite clear. Despite a refreshing acknowledgement of the importance and wonder of sexual pleasure, the romances are described without much insight into anything beyond the hollow intensity of infatuation. Adrian's most natural mode is not grandeur, but its echo: the broken relationship, the lost sibling, the melancholy fate of former changelings. There is still beauty in such things, of course, a terrible beauty, and flashes of it, like lightning strikes, grace this long night with an intermittent but potent illumination.
"A Tiny Feast," the standalone excerpt from The Great Night mentioned above, can be read here.