It's time for another installment of the Book Rat Project, the sustained experiment in which a book critic (me) attempts to act as a human algorithm for a willing subject (my Phoenix colleague Will Delman). After a misguided effort to make my subject read a critically revered novelist in translation, I realized that one of my favorite books last year, Chris Adrian's The Great Night, is now available in paperback. So I gave it to Will to read and he liked it quite a bit:
Like most lit-nerds I was a big fan of Neil Gaiman’s
Sandman series when I was a young and semi-disaffected high-school
student, and I still keep tabs on what the man is up too from time to time,
which is to say that when Eugenia handed me Chris Adrian’s The Good Night
and I read the back cover I said “Sounds vaguely like something Neil Gaiman
might come up with.”
“Don’t you dare compare them to each other!” she
half-jokingly shouted before nearly snatching the book back. “That’s like
comparing something that . . . I don’t even know what, like comparing something
that’s really good to something that was good when you were ten.” (I might be
taking a little license with the exact dialog here, but I stand by the general
sentiments that were expressed)
So now that I’ve implied the possibility that this review
will, in fact, compare Chris Adrian to Neil Gaiman I can say this: there is no
comparison. The Great Night is the kind of book I imagine every straight
genre-writer wishes they could write, a story that’s not only deeply informed by
dramatic and literary history, but also extremely aware of the patterns and
tropes of the modern genre landscape.
While many people have called this a “reworking of
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” I think it would be more
accurate to say The Great Night was inspired and informed by the
bard—there’s no sense that the play is being reworked, at least not in West
Side Story sense of reworking; many of Midsummer’s characters appear
here in one form or another, but The Great Night is far more tragedy than
Adrain tortures his characters exquisitely, both human and
faerie alike, as he uncovers the truths of their motivations and actions.
Children stolen or adopted are stolen again—by magic, disease, royal
decree—brothers and lovers commit suicide for reasons the survivors can’t
understand; relationships and marriages are murdered by tragedy, psychosis, and
repressed memories. There were times when as a reader I wanted to cry “uncle!”
on behalf of Adrian’s entire cast, but it’s also impossible to ignore that many
of his characters, in one way or another deserve, at least in part, the
sufferings that are inflicted on them. And maybe that’s the real genius of
The Great Night; ultimately there are no clear-cut heroes or villains (in
fact, if you ask me, if you don’t end up feeling a little sorry for the
“villain” at the end then your world-view might be just a little too
black-and-white). Every victory and accomplishment feels hard-won, and even the
few moments of humor—and there are some good laughs to be had along the way—come
with the knowledge of an impending trial to be faced just around the bend.
I should admit that The Great Night might have
benefitted, just a little, from where I read it; The Book Rat is filing this
review from Pompeii, Italy. It’s easy to imagine hidden kingdoms full of tragic
stories here among the unearthed ruins of a city, the living part of which is
still struggling to find an economic identity beyond tourism. Everyone in this
small, mostly ignored city—most guidebooks ignore the living city completely and
only cover the ruins—is in some sense a survivor off the edge of tragedy.
Still, I’m going to go out on a limb and say we’ve all know
landscapes where we suspected that something magical might happen, and if that
were all this book had going for it, well, it wouldn’t be half as good.
Basically The Great Night is precisely the kind of genre-busting,
brilliantly written novel that every book lover should cherish and love,
sufferings and all.
The Book Rat Grade: A
Woot! Next up, Jess Walter's new novel Beautiful Ruins. I forked this one over very reluctantly because I freaking love Jess Walter, and Beautiful Ruins looks bonkers.