A doctor and former seminarian, Chris Adrian has over the past decade written three sprawling novels of unusual thematic scope and one collection of highly inventive short stories. His first novel, Gob’s Grief, was more varied in style and intent than some entire careers. Though it presents itself as an American Civil War picaresque (the opening line is: ‘Thomas Jefferson Woodhull was 11 years old when he ran away from home to join the Union army’), it gradually turns into a sort of steampunk horror story, featuring the reanimation of corpses and characters with names like The Urfeist and Colonel Blood. Its intertwined – or perhaps simply scattered – motifs draw on American political and literary history as well as science and psychology. The point of view shifts unexpectedly and frequently, and the broad cast of characters includes, among many invented figures, reimagined versions of both Whitman and Lincoln.
Adrian is willing to try anything, or perhaps compelled to try everything. His prose vacillates between stark beauty, as in a description of a photo of dead soldiers (‘their clothes can barely contain them. They lie along a fence in various positions. This one has got his hands thrown over his shoulders. That one has got his hand on his belly. Where are their shoes?’) and self-conscious overwriting (‘Gob was dashed with horror, as if someone had filled a bucket with pure liquid horror and dumped it over his head’). The world of the novel is wildly inventive, with the emphasis on wild; it is the product of a brilliant imagination, but one too pleased with its own powers to be restrained by useful limits. In the end, Gob’s Grief collapses into an ecstatic incoherence, the inevitable product of such frantic authorial efforts.
Two themes from the first novel remain pivotal in Adrian’s later work: medicine and religion. His audacious second novel, The Children’s Hospital, is a fantastical post-apocalyptic epic. A great flood has swept the earth; the only survivors appear to be the patients and staff of the paediatric wing of a hospital, kept afloat on the endless sea by an intermittently beneficent, apparently autistic angel. Tense and point of view change constantly, sometimes multiple times on a single page; flashbacks nest within flashbacks, and dialogue is sometimes inside quotation marks, sometimes not, maybe according to a subtle scheme, maybe not. The narrative voice – the story is told by several omniscient angels – is distractingly complex. The Children’s Hospital is ambitious, but suffers from a deep, if carefully obscured, insecurity: you feel the author watching you read, trying to gauge your reaction.
Adrian’s new novel, The Great Night, is a comic (and erotic) meditation on human suffering, set against a magic realist version of contemporary San Francisco. The book borrows characters and plot elements from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but owes just as much to Stephen King and Armistead Maupin, whose Tales of the City series informs some of its more melodramatic aspects. Three heartbroken San Franciscans (‘mortals,’ in the parlance of the novel) on their way to a party on Midsummer’s Night make the fateful mistake of cutting through Buena Vista Park, which has for some time been home to Titania, Oberon and a sprawling cast of Shakespearean fairies, including Puck. Adrian has transformed Puck from mischief maker to monster; he is kept from wreaking havoc by a spell of bondage only Titania can break. The mortals – Molly, Henry and Will – are recovering from losses (a boyfriend’s suicide for Molly; a cruel break-up for Henry; a fateful sexual indiscretion for Will) which they hope the party will salve.
But they never make it. Titania, herself in mourning after the death from leukaemia of the child Oberon kidnapped for her, and having banished her husband for his incapacity to grieve with her, unshackles Puck in a self-destructive fit, and he sets out to annihilate the park and every creature in it. The outside world is spared only by Oberon’s foresight: he has cast a spell, activated on Puck’s release, that surrounds the park in a Puck-proof force field. It also traps our mortal heroes in the park, along with a band of loveable homeless people, analogues of Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals, who happen to be rehearsing a musical version of the Charlton Heston movie Soylent Green. Much of the novel consists of flashbacks from the lives of the characters, and the serendipitous intersections between them, as they all move towards a final conflict with Puck, the Beast, which is destined to take place during the first, and perhaps only, staging of the musical.
Adrian is not alone, even (or especially) among his young American cohort, in his rejection of the idea that fiction must employ received structures, themes and styles. Freedom comes at a cost, however, and Adrian’s generation is susceptible to generalised whimsy – the result, perhaps, of being under the spell of certain stylistic antecedents (García Márquez, Rushdie, Borges) while operating in a different political and cultural context from the ones that allowed those writers to flourish. But for every saccharine moment in The Great Night, there are several that are vivid and moving, and one senses, beneath the flash and bluster, a seriousness many of his contemporaries lack. The catch is that the novel is most effective when it is most conventional. Amid the Shakespearean ballast are several deft psychological dramas, and Adrian does his best work within these realist narrative arcs.
The best of these is about Titania’s loss, which seamlessly combines supernatural motif and human emotion. Hoping to cure his wife of melancholy, Oberon ventures out of the park and steals her a human child, whom she names Boy. When he gets ill, the couple disguise themselves as mortals (Trudy and Bob; Boy becomes Brad) and subject him to the real-life horrors of paediatric oncology. They endure the empty reassurances of doctors and nurses as their child fades, then rallies, then fades again, this time for good. The doctors’ platitudes are painful to read – instead of saying ‘Your child is dying,’ one tells the couple: ‘I think it’s time to talk about our goals for Brad.’ Adrian’s meta-Shakespearean comic archness contrasts sharply with the doctors’ mundane jargon. He is drawing here, as in The Children’s Hospital, on his own professional experience, and the detail is essential to the story.
But if The Great Night is, in part, a triumph of psychological acuity, why does it not succeed as a work of experimental fantasy or magic realism? It isn’t that Adrian’s imagination isn’t up to the task – indeed, the novel is conceptually sumptuous, with its clever fairies, dark tunnels, shape-changing monsters and magic spells. But these elements lack any unifying principle. The book is dreamlike in the less flattering sense: it rambles and even the most attentive reader will often feel confused. If the fairies can instantly conjure an impenetrable iron door, or transform themselves into whatever they please, why can’t they cure leukaemia? The enchantment is opportunistic, not intrinsic to the imagined world. A similar problem arises with Adrian’s profligate use of more mundane symbols and metaphors. The book is full of surprise connections: Molly’s dead boyfriend turns out to be another character’s dead brother; Henry turns out to have been Titania and Oberon’s attending physician; two similar basements in two similar houses prove to be one and the same. But if these connections are significant, what about the fact that three different characters are called Bob? Are they all Oberon? It’s hard to know; it’s hard even to know if we are supposed to know. Every line shimmers with the possibility of meaning, but it’s never immediately clear whether that meaning is actually there. When it works, this technique creates a delightful sensation of suspense, but when it doesn’t, it’s merely tiresome.
Then there are the more extreme aspects of Adrian’s aesthetic. He is gripped by an almost puerile fascination with bodily function. Characters are always sniffing one another’s bottoms; there’s ‘poop’ smeared on someone’s leg at an orgy. And there is more ejaculating than in any ostensibly non-pornographic novel in recent memory. In one scene, Will masturbates with all his windows open: ‘He sat there with cum on his face, feeling immensely embarrassed. A neighbour across the courtyard gave him two thumbs up.’ Later, in the fairies’ domain, he struggles through ‘a sea of disembodied penises’ and is nipped on the ears by ‘a swarming flock of vaginas’. There are blowjobs and muff dives, Titania’s breasts light up, and the mortals engage in a climactic three-way fairy wine-induced fuckfest. All of this ought to be at least diverting. But it is more often effortful, far from the goofball hilarity of Nicholson Baker’s pornographic excursions, or the darker comic raunch of Burroughs (or even Bukowski).
At times, Adrian endows his characters with something approaching moral purity, as when an internal voice teaches Molly, who had a black foster brother, how to think about race:
Her mother had told them that Jesus would help them along to a place where they couldn’t even see that he was black, that with perfect love would come perfect colour blindness, but every time Molly saw him standing next to one of her brothers or sisters it was all she noticed about him, how different he looked. Black is beautiful, the voice kept saying, which made her shake her head.
This stuff is self-congratulatory, as are the book’s frequent paeans to San Francisco. When Molly remarks on the strange items a previous owner left in her boyfriend’s house – exotic herbs, dozens of bicycles, foetal animals in jars – he says: ‘It’s San Francisco … people do all sorts of things here.’ And in New York, and everywhere else.
Somewhere here there must be a guiding metaphor: something about the vagaries of the body, or the imaginative power (and mortal danger) of sex, or the relationship of pleasure to suffering. But I’m not sure I can quite make out what it is. The mishmash of an ending – with its seemingly arbitrary disbursement of happiness and misery, oblivion and eternal life, violent action and dreamy reminiscence – does little to help. And this maddening conclusion returns me to the problem of magic realism. The question is not whether Adrian and his prankster peers can do it well (they can), but why they are doing it at all. Magic realism’s originators wrote subversive texts that adopted the mythologies of the marginalised and gave voice to a previously unheard collective social consciousness. Their young American followers are, broadly put, themselves creatures of privilege. They’re well educated – educated in, among other things, the literatures of the dispossessed, and the many pitfalls of privilege – and have learned to discount their own experience as corrupt. What is there left to do, then, but echo the stylistic flourishes of their outlaw heroes? These are smart kids, and it turns out that magic realism is a lot of fun to write. Adrian is having a grand old time in his books, animating entire worlds with a wave of his wand.
American writers are at the mercy of a publishing regime that does not, by and large, value middle-class experience, and is obsessed with the categorisation of literary work. If, for instance, you’re a white woman in her late twenties with a master’s degree who wants to write a novel about love, just see where they shelve your book at Barnes & Noble. Writers from educated backgrounds and without any special ethnic authenticity have two choices: take the low road and write a memoir, or take the high road and make something up – ideally something as far removed from your own life as possible. If it’s extra wacky, better still: the metamovement will give you shelter. This, then, is the dilemma of the Obama-era literary landscape: we are trained to write about underdogs, but America seems to have run out of them. Or, rather, the underdogs now get book deals, and have taken to privilege like every underdog who ever joined the establishment.