[the book rat project] Week 10: We Picked a Winner


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 comedy.

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. 

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