Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Quentin Coldwater, the hero of Lev Grossman's second novel, The Magicians, should by all accounts be a happy young man. He is at the top of his graduating class; his parents are both successful, and have provided him with a comfortable living; and he is surrounded by a close group of like-minded friends (even if his best friend is dating the girl he secretly loves). But early on in the novel we find that Quentin is not a happy boy. On his way to an interview with Priceton, he passes a neighborhood filled with life. Upon seeing the "hipster boutiques" and a patio bar filled with old people drinking at three forty-five in the afternoon, the reader is given this account of Quentin's predicament: "All of it just confirmed his belief that his life, his real life, the life he should be living, had been mislaid through some clerical error by the cosmic bureaucracy. This couldn't be it. It had been diverted somewhere else, to somebody else, and he'd been issued this shitty substitute faux life instead."
Where has this disappointment come from?
Quentin, it seems, has spent his childhood lost in a Narnia-like fantasy series about a magical world called Fillory. The five book series follows a family of children who "have adventures and explore magical lands and defend the gentle creatures who live there against the various forces that menace them." Quentin longs to be in this secret world, or more accurately, he longs for his own world to contain the adventure and purpose of the fictional Fillory. The world he sees and the world he dreams of don't match up, and it is this disconnect that has put Quentin in such a funk.
It is only a matter of time before Quentin discovers magic does exist and it is taught at a secret school named Brakebills. He is quickly entered into the school, and off on a degree in Magicianship. But Quentin soon discovers Brakebills is more community college than Hogwarts, and this is where Grossman's truly original concept begins to take shape. The magic Quentin thought would set him free is just as mundane and meaningless in Brakebills as his life in the real world is. The adventure and sense of purpose Quentin thought he would find does not present itself in his new life. Magic worlds are not all they are summoned up to be.
Grossman's novel is divided into four sections, with the first section -the longest and by far the best- devoted to Quentin's life at Brakebills. It is in this section that Grossman takes Quentin out of his fantasyland idea of what magic should be, and brings it into the real world. In reviews, Grossman is often described as a hybrid of J. K. Rowling and Jay McInerney. It is no stretch to describe the novel as combination of the Harry Potter and Less Than Zero, which many critics easily did. And to a degree, this is an accurate description of what The Magicians tries to be.
The Rowling comparisons are easy to understand, even if Grossman lacks her full-tilt imagination. The Magicians is populated with a few haunting images that best illustrate Grossman's adroit understanding of what we look for in a fantasy novel, and how those tropes can easily be turned on their heads. Early in the novel, Quentin finds a cabinet reminiscent of Lewis's transporting wardrobe. Sensing a mystical quality in the cabinet, and admittedly lost in his own drunken Fillory mind, Quentin moves the cabinet, looking for a door to another world. What he finds instead is a wall and a cabinet full of liquor. His fantasy life smacks right up against reality, and reveals nothing but disappointment. Later, in the book's surreal second half, Quentin discovers a bar straight out of Tolkien. Grossman does his finest work here, giving us a peach schnapps swilling bear named Humbledrum, who, instead of offering sage advice to his new friend, only ruminates on the his memory of honey, and an Ork-like birch tree named Favrel who alleviates the destruction of his homeland with a cigarette, even at the risk of setting himself on fire. Moments like these take us to the darker side of a magical life, and subvert our standard beliefs about these worlds have to offer. I wish the entire novel were this good.
It is the McInerney side where the novel develops its most original ideas, and where Grossman begins to falter. Reading the college section of the novel, I felt as if Grossman were restraining himself from going to far, as if he was worried what his out of control magic might do to his novel, or better yet, what a publisher might say. In a wicked scene near the beginning of the novel, Quentin discovers a fellow classmate engaging in a subversive and shocking sexual act. Instead of running, Quentin hangs around to watch a little longer than he should, even wondering why he was not chosen to participate. This scene, thoughtfully placed in the early in the novel, shakes up the format, jolting and alerting the reader to the type of book The Magicians tries to be. Grossman, however, fails to deliver on this early intrigue. (The scene is never mentioned again, nor explained.) In fact, he rushes over several other several other explicitly "adult" scenes in his novel, such as drug and alcohol use, an (imagined?) threesome, and even a moment of what could easily be described as date-rape, which Grossman gets out of by having his characters assume the form of foxes. And while the novel does not need excessive and lurid moments to flourish, some counterpoint the surreal fantasy world would feel refreshing, especially given our current chaste literary world, where vampires and werewolves fight over frigid humans. In fact, stacked up next to some other fantasy novels in the decidedly non-"literary novels," The Magicians feels another tween series.
Where the novel really fails is with its characters. Quentin is attracted to an exclusive group of student, known as the Physicals (named for the type of magic they are able to perform), and quickly gets accepted into their coven. At the center of this group is Eliot, whose penchant for expensive wine, elegant shirts and cutting wit makes him the group's natural leader. Eliot gets all of the best lines in the book, and is a character Grossman clearly has fun with. But Eliot, like almost every other character in the novel, fails to become fully realized. We see him on the outside, but never feel who he is, never get to that moment that makes us know him, the moment of connection we crave as readers. Grossman piles on his characters by the novel's end, over-populating his magic world with even more faceless names, instead of focusing on the characters he has staged his novel around, the character we want to care about. A case can be made that this is his point of the novel, that magic life, much like real life, is filled with masses of people who we see everyday, interact with, but never really know. In this "real life," we trivialize others, ignore their minor problems and possible bad breath, gossip about them at office parties, and then forget them when they are gone. If in fact this is Grossman's point, his novel is a failure of execution. Grossman, it seems, does not remember why Quentin was so drawn into the world of Fillory in the first place, or why we as readers want to connect with him. Anyone who has ever fallen in love with a book knows that the world of any novel should not only be as fully realized as the one we actually inhabit, but somehow give us something tangible to help us see our own world more clearly, to realize ourselves, even if it is through goblins, talking trees or mighty wizards. Lev Grossman has written a novel for anyone who knows what it is like to immerse yourself in a fantastic and magical universe. In the world of The Magicians, however, the looking glass needs a little more reflection.

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