Chris Adrian’s Disappointing Night

I was quite taken with Chris Adrian’s second novel, The Children’s Hospital, so I had high hopes for The Great Night, which hit shelves last week.

Alas, it’s a step back from The Children’s Hospital. It’s not really a bad book, just kind of dull. The plot is loosely based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” transported to San Francisco’s Buena Visa Park in 2008. Titania and Oberon have a human son who dies of leukemia. In a fit of rage, Titania frees Puck (or some character named “Puck,” but not really resembling Shakespeare’s Puck). He goes about sowing chaos in the lives of the faries and such, as well as in the lives of a few unfortunate San Franciscans who have wandered into the park amidst the chaos.

Most of the book is taken up with the backstories of the characters, of which there are at least 4 main ones, so that makes for a lot of backstories to juggle in just under 300 pages. That, plus the fact that the stories themselves aren’t too great, make the book a bit of a slog. The wondrous thing about The Children’s Hospital was how effortlessly Adrian balanced a riveting plot while unwinding backstories of characters that both made them utterly human yet also made them sound like characters our of a fantasia. The book was endlessly intriguing and I could read it for hours at a time.

Not so with this one. Adrian is force-feeding us character histories while every now and then checking in with the ongoing chase narrative, just to let us know that people are still mindlessly terrified and running around to no real purpose. Its much more of a sausage to Children’s Hospital’s immaculately tiered wedding cake.

And it just doesn’t feel meaningful. Children’s Hospital’s made you feel as though you were participating in the creation of a modern myth . . . this was a creation story for our times, with mysterious, resonating images recurring throughout the text. Great Night just feels like some random stuff Adrian thought up while filling out the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” template.

I don’t mean to say that there is nothing redeeming about The Great Night–Adrian is too good of a writer to have nothing interesting in a book of his. But the compelling bits are swimming in an ocean of mediocre.

The coverage of the book has thus far been disappointing. Both the SF Chronicle and NPR essentially summarize the plot while reminding us that Adrian wrote two previous, acclaimed books. (I find it strange, as well, that NPR’s Heller McAlpin deemed Great Night Adrian’s “most complex work to date” despite the fact that it’s about 3/4 the length of Gob’s Grief and much less than half that of Children’s Hospital.)

I’ll be interested what the more credible venues have to say when they inevitably get around to reviewing this book.

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How disappointing! I loved The Children’s Hospital, even if the middle segment of the book starts to lose steam, and in the absence of any overarching plot crisis, some of the characters (especially Rob and Jemma) start to feel a little shopworn.


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