Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians by Lev Grossman, 2009

On alternate Tuesdays Quentin worked with Bigby, the Physical Kids' unofficial faculty advisor, who turned out to be a small man with large liquid eyes and close-cropped gray hair who dressed neatly, if extremely affectedly, in a long Victorian-looking duster. His posture was slightly hunched, but he didn't seem otherwise frail or crippled. Quentin had the impression that Bigby was a political refugee from somewhere. He was always making vague noises about the conspiracy that had ousted him, and what he would do following his inevitable return to power. He had the stiff, wounded dignity of the deposed intelligentsia.

One afternoon during a seminar--Bigby specialized in ridiculously difficult enchantments that transmuted elements by manipulating their structure on a quantum level--he paused and performed an odd gesture: he reached back behind first one shoulder, then the other, unbuttoning something back there. The movement reminded Quentin of nothing more than a woman unhooking her bra. When Bigby was finished four magnificent insect wings like a dragonfly's, two on each side, sprang out from behind him. He flexed them with a deep, satisfied sigh.

The wings were gauzy and iridescent. They disappeared for a second in a buzz of activity, then reappeared as they became still.

"Sorry," he said. "Couldn't stand it a minute more."

It never stopped, the weirdness of this place. It just went on and on.

"Professor Bigby, are you a--" Quentin stopped. A what? An elf? An angel? He was being rude, but he couldn't help it. "Are you a fairy?"

Bigby smiled a pained smile. His wings made a dry chitinous rattle.

"Pixie, technically," he said.

He seemed a little sensitive about it.
---- (page 109)

The Magicians is a strange novel, with an unusual and fascinating central theme: the pleasures and dangers of the fantasy worlds in which we immerse ourselves. Is escapism a blind attempt to shield ourselves from the troubles of our own world, or a healthy way to deal with stress and develop imagination? If we were ever able to actually enter Narnia or Oz, would those fantasy worlds really be a miraculous paradise, or would they be just as complex, challenging and screwed-up as ours is? Grossman has looted the most popular fantasy novels of all time for material: The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, the Harry Potter series, the Chronicles of Narnia, with references to Alice in Wonderland, Dungeons and Dragons and the X-Men thrown in for good measure. If Grossman wasn't such a strong and original writer, The Magicians would feel like a bunch of pieces ripped off from other works and tossed in a blender. Instead, it's a complicated, uproariously funny, sometimes lyrical novel that's simultaneously a parody, a pastiche, a homage and its own beast entirely.

Like so many stories of fantasy, the novel begins with a seemingly ordinary young man living in the ordinary world, who has no idea of his magical destiny. Quentin Coldwater is a gifted and brilliant student, but he spends his days in a nihilistic fog, wishing that he could enter the world of Fillory, the setting of his favorite series of fantasy novels (Fillory is about as close to Narnia as Grossman can get without legal trouble). When it comes time to enter college, Quentin finds himself accepted into Brakebills, a school for magicians located in a sprawling manor house in upstate New York. As he has long hoped, Quentin is no mere mortal; he's a powerful magician-in-training. But even Brakebills and a crowd of quirky new friends are not enough to staunch Quentin's existential ennui. For his life to have meaning, he has to travel to Fillory, which is not only real (talking bunnies and all), but far more deadly and menacing than it ever seemed on paper.

Only a truly capable writer could make a book like this work at all, balancing the inherently amusing metafictional aspects of the premise and the deep, dark ideas behind it. It would have been very easy for the novel to come off as a sort of ultimate genre fan-fiction mashup. Grossman avoids this by creating a world that, despite its strong resemblance to many other fictional universes, is very much its own animal in terms of texture and "feel" (if that makes sense). On the surface, the idea of a wizard college sounds like a blatant Harry Potter ripoff; in Grossman's hands, however, it feels more like a respectful homage, even if there is a suspiciously Quidditch-like magical chess sport called welters. The fact that his hedonistic characters spend a lot of time drinking, swearing and having sex also serves to further distance the book from the Harry Potter series--certainly nothing like that ever went on at Hogwarts.

It's a funny thing: by introducing a hipper, more modern sensibility and more mature content to classic genre tropes, Grossman hopes to shine a new light on familiar storylines. Yet the technique sometimes feels as though he's cheapening the story rather than enhancing it. Yes, I admire and enjoy his attempts to complicate and darken the world of fantasy fiction, but those old devices are old for a reason. Having your characters react to the impossible with cynicism, opportunism and occasionally lechery rather than wide-eyed enthusiasm is innovative, but it also feels disheartening and somewhat depressing. Of course, that's kind of the point.

Similarly, Quentin has to be one of the most unusual protagonists in the history of fantasy. He's about as far from Frodo or Harry as its possible to get. He's every inch an antihero: whiny, snide, vindictive, self-obsessed, mopey, unkind and cowardly. Although he's an incredibly unappealing character in some ways, Grossman develops him nicely, and even though we may not always approve of his behavior, it's impossible not to sympathize with him. His obsession with finding happiness in the form of an escape is sometimes exasperating, but it's oddly touching, too. The fact that Grossman is not afraid to make his main character a total jerk is a good example of the kind of risks he takes in The Magicians, not all of which pay off. While Quentin's development is interesting and unusual, it can also be a pain to put up with him and his constant negativity, especially in the book's episodic middle section. One of the things that makes the novel a challenging read is Grossman's refusal to allow us to sink into the story the way we would a Harry Potter novel. Is this a storytelling slipup or a genius device? Hard to say.

The other characters are just as atypical as Quentin. His fellow students are not a loyal, courageous group of sidekicks, but a gang of squabbling, angry, messed-up friends whose closeness is always about to slide into animosity. There's Eliot, a depressed, gay alcoholic, Janet, an oversexed social butterfly with a mean streak, Josh, a wisecracking guy with unpredictable magical powers, and Alice, a shy, brilliant nerd. The characters are understatedly complicated, and Grossman does a wonderful job of letting readers see between the lines of Quentin's narration to the truth of whose these people are. None of them are any more traditional heroes than Quentin is (with the possible exception of Alice), and there are no cliched moments when they "prove themselves." This a seriously dysfunctional group of people. But hey, dysfunction is entertaining.

Grossman's plotting is decidedly strange. The first two-thirds of the book take place at Brakebills, while the characters only reach Fillory towards the end. The two stories feel strangely disconnected. The Brakebills segments are loose and episodic, while the Fillory ones seem too short. There's very little time spent in Fillory before the climactic fight, which seems odd since so much of the book is based around the prospect of reaching that world. The plotting could definitely have been tightened; despite the reviews claiming that the book was "gripping," I found the pace kind of languorous and sleepy. The middle in particular seemed to have fairly little by way of conflict. There's nothing wrong with a slower pace, but it's a strange authorial choice in a book like this. I think the finale would have been more satisfying if we'd spent more time in Fillory, and less time at Brakebills.

Fittingly, Grossman's prose is alternately beautiful and pretentious, sometimes shockingly insightful and dazzlingly descriptive, sometimes self-consciously overdone. It's entirely possible that some of the overly "literary" writing was intentional and was supposed to fit in with the character of the novel (which it more or less does; it'd be hard to find a more pretentious bunch than Quentin and Co). The dialogue is often sharp and finely tuned, but there's the occasional exchange or pop-culture reference that feels forced and overwritten. Again, this could well be a device, and if it is, it's a fairly effective one. If not, well, Grossman's writing is still impressive.

I do have to give him credit for weaving a highly skillful main storyline through the book, dropping clues even when we weren't looking for them. I may have found some of the book slow, but the groundwork for the denouement is nicely laid throughout. The climax is a real barn-burner, and the Big Bad is genuinely scary, as well as very clever. There's a bit too much falling action for my taste (especially since the book is only the first in a trilogy), but the novel definitely goes out with a bang, and the very ending manages to both tie up the novel thematically and set up the sequel, 2011's The Magician King.

Is The Magicians quite as profound and moving as it hopes to be? Not quite; Quentin is just a shade too unlikable and the novel's tone is just a bit too whiny. But even if Grossman doesn't absolutely nail it, he comes dizzyingly close at times. There are scenes, paragraphs, sentences, where he achieves small flashes of brilliance. There are few fantasy novels out there as unusual and thought-provoking as The Magicians. By denying us the satisfaction of simple heroes and friendly talking animals and flawless magical worlds, he makes us really think about why those things matter in the first place. Are those idyllic fantasies utterly impossible, or is happiness a state of mind? Will Quentin Coldwater ever find the satisfaction that he seeks? Only the next book will tell, and if it's half as good as this one, it'll be quite a read.

NEXT UP: The next John Rebus novel, Mortal Causes.

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