Imagine, for a moment, an Oberon and Titania who live in modern day San Francisco. Oh, they’re still king and queen of the fairies, still magical creatures. But, just like mortals, they have their flaws. They fight, they make up. After one particular fight, Oberon brings Boy to Titania as a peace offering. This is not new, the fairies often snatch young boys from the surrounding neighborhood and bring them to live “under the hill” for a time. Not as equals, of course. As toys. And, when they’re bored of their toys, they throw them back.
Something is different about this one, though. This one is not a toy. This boy they treat as a son. Titania deeply loves the boy, an emotion that is also deeply foreign to her (and she does not always like or appreciate it). Sometimes she can not live without him, other times she curses Oberon for ever bringing him to her.
Something else is different about Boy — he has leukemia. What happens to Titania and Oberon next is some of the saddest fiction I think I’ve ever read. The author’s descriptions of parents inside a hospital cancer ward as so realistic you feel like you’re right there with them (and it is not a place you want to be for long). This only stands to reason since Chris Adrian, author of The Great Night, is in real life a pediatric oncologist. So he, however unfortunately, knows all too much about this area.
I’m three paragraphs in, and that’s just the premise for the story. I could take a whole novel of that. “Titania and Oberon living in modern day San Francisco. They kidnap a boy, learn what it means to love him and to be parents, and then have to deal with his mortality as leukemia takes him away. Boom. Go.” I would buy that book.
But this book is more than that. This book is Adrian’s retelling of Shakespeare’s entire story, with a few twists. Oberon, after a particularly horrible fight with Titania (who blames him for all of their pain), has left. Titania desperaretly wants him to return and sends her fairy servants out in search of him daily. In this story, though, Puck is not a mischievous sprite – he is an untrustworthy creature who spends his time in chains. Puck is able to convince Titania, in her grief, that he will surely find Oberon if only she unchains him. She does so and we discover what the other fairies already knew – that Puck is a world-eating monster. The rest of the story is spent with the fairies alternately running away, attempting to fight, or basically kissing their fairy behinds goodbye because the end of the world is surely upon them.
Meanwhile, up in the human world, three distraught lovers have become lost in the park. Each has his (or her) own backstory about how love, sex and relationships have gone horribly wrong. It doesn’t take long for these mortals to run into the fairies, and they all flee from Puck together.
But wait, there’s more! What of Bottom and the mechanicals? Here we get a band of homeless people who have become convinced that the Mayor is solving the city’s homeless problem with cannibalism. So, naturally, they decide to stage a musical retelling of Soylent Green, the old science fiction movie about the same topic.
How does it all end? Well, with lots of sex, I’ll say that. I don’t know if that’s a statement that the author’s making about Midsummer or about San Francisco, but he certainly doesn’t need any double entendres or innuendos to make his point.
The story is not an exact retelling of Midsummer, and doesn’t try to be, as you can see. Ultimately, I found that I liked the Shakespeare bits and didn’t care much one way or another for the rest. Like I said, I would have read an entire story of nothing but the backstory about Titania, Oberon and Boy. Or how Puck had come to be captured, I’m sure that would make a good story as well. It’s just that, when you start adding characters to Shakespeare, you lose me a bit as your audience. I’m in it for the Shakespeare, and coming at it from the angle of what you do with the Shakespeare. When you take some Shakespeare out and add some of your own creation back in? Well, now you’ve basically asked me to put the two side by side … and I’m not sure what modern author would win that battle.
Chris Adrian was named as part of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” and, as mentioned, is currently in his pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship at UCSF. This is his third novel.