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At Work

Chris Adrian on ‘The Great Night’

May 17, 2011 | by

Photograph by Gus Elliott.

In The Great Night, Chris Adrian recasts A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Gone are the Rude Mechanicals, replaced instead by a homeless troop staging a musicalized Soylent Green; the duped lovers are more heartbroken than confused, though they’re all lost in San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park on the way to a party. The faeries remain, but they’re heartbroken too (the faerie queen, Titania, mourns the death of her human child and the departure of her king, Oberon), or malevolent and vengeful (the now scary Puck). In all his work, Adrian takes stabs at figuring out what to do in a world brimming with sin, dead brothers, and broken hearts. I recently spoke with him; he called from San Francisco, where he’s a fellow in pediatric hematology-oncology.

This new book is a modern retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What’s your relationship to the play? How does the book stand against it?

My relationship is one of abject admiration. I had it in the back of my head to do a story or a novel that’s a retelling of a Shakespeare, and I thought I’d probably like to retell A Midsummer’s Night Dream but could never figure out what the actual story would be. What could I possibly come up with that would add anything to something that was already perfect, or at least make the retold story urgent and compelling? So it took a while. I figured it out in part from walking back and forth to work through Buena Vista Park at dawn and dusk, when it’s a fairly creepy and magical place, and in part from having a relationship fall apart in just the right way to generate an obsessive need to tell a story about love.

You’ve called this a less ambitious novel compared to your other work. How so? Is that even something you should be admitting?

In some ways it felt less ambitious, though it didn’t turn out to be any less work. The story, at least when it started out, was about love, something of a lark as a topic compared to untimely death or the end of the world. Untimely death and the end of the world crept into the novel anyway, so it became just as ambitious as any of the others.

It is very funny.

It was definitely supposed to be funny. Part of writing about that spectacularly failed relationship was making fun of the failure, or my part in the failure, or the debilitating nature of my obsession over the way in the which the relationship fell apart. So there’s that part, where I felt like it had to be funny to be personally bearable or excusable to tell. But also it’s modeled after the play. It’s hilarious and sad at the same time in some parts, especially the bit at the end when the Mechanicals are putting on the Pyramus and Thisbe play. That one little bit of a scene has always struck me as massively hilarious and simultaneously pathetic and heartbreaking. And earnest. That section at the end seemed like something to strive toward as a writer—if I ever manage anything a hundredth as delightful and devastating as that scene, I’ll be very happy.

Floating hospitals, death-defeating machines, angels, devil children, fairies: the supernatural, the magical, the surreal and sinister abound in your work. What’s useful about it?

The urge to have talking bagels or magic ponies or what have you in the story makes it easier to write about stuff that I find difficult to face emotionally or difficult to articulate emotionally. It makes some of that darker or more oppressive emotional stuff easier to manipulate or turn around in the story. Though ultimately the weirder it gets, the greater the onus for whatever sadness or triumphs the talking bagel or the magic pony experience to feel real to the reader—the more imperative it is that the emotional part of it feel real, be starkly recognizable.

About a writer character, you say, “It would be a miracle if he could satisfactorily express, both to her and himself, why he did what he did.” To me that kind of pinpointed how your fiction works—it does feel like each novel or story is your attempt to understand something you profoundly don’t. Does your work come out of that place of not knowing why?

With this novel it became a little different because it was written with one particular person in mind and was trying to articulate something specific to him in a way that I thought ordinary conversation would never be able to do. But there’s always an imperative to articulate something I don’t know how to articulate. And ultimately when I’m finished I still don’t know that I’ve managed to articulate what I felt compelled to say. But when I look at the novel and reconsider the sort of shapeless thing I was trying to give shape to, it looks something like what I imagined, even if it isn’t exactly it. It probably never will exactly be it. From story to story or novel to novel the shapeless, nameless thing that I try to describe will always be there in part somehow, but getting it wrong is part of the deal. And the compensation for getting it wrong is that you get to go work on something else and try again.

You’ve said that you went to divinity school to give you “some way to think about the suffering of children that does not make you want to kill yourself” as a doctor. How does medicine inform your writing?

There’s definitely something about being privileged to witness people’s personal catastrophes that teaches you something about trauma—even if it’s only recognizing it. But I think there’s also something about being present for people who are going through the worst times of their lives, and a lot the parents and families I meet in the course of the oncology work are going through the worst times of their lives. It drives the need to write. It’s not a need to write about those people specifically, but this job is a window into what can be both tragic and miraculous everyday. Writing has been a reaction against what I’ve seen as a physician, even if, ultimately, it doesn’t necessarily make sense of any of it, or even make me feel better about what goes on in the hospital and the wider world.

And where does belief fit in?

At divinity school, a lot of people talk about writing being their ministry, which struck me as both appealing and horrifying at the same time. I don’t think I ever totally sorted out what my feelings were about that. It seems like it's a bad idea because, if you consider writing as ministry, it necessarily entails some kind of agenda in the writing in the same way that a sermon has an agenda. But at the same time it seems like a sensible way to think about writing because there is something appealing about the idea of your body of work as a writer being a cohesive project that’s trying to make an argument about why you don’t necessarily have to give in to your existential angst, which at least at Harvard was the gist of a lot of the sermons that got tossed around. But the idea of going to your desk for existential comfort, or at least some sort of a reason to get up every day, and also a reason for why it’s okay to get up every day or even desirable to get up every day—that idea makes sense to me. And if you could actually communicate that sense to your reader—if your book convinced them somehow, even temporarily, that it’s perhaps overwhelmingly okay to get up every day—that would be, to say the least, pretty neat.

Tonight, Chris Adrian will be reading at McNally Jackson at 7:00 P.M. Tomorrow, catch him at the Russian Samovar at 7:00 P.M. for the FSG Reading Series.

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