Interrogating the Text #2: Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” – The Review
Some time ago – back in August, now – I started a new, very occasional series of posts focused on critically reading and reviewing published works of fiction that I call “Interrogating the Text”. The series, so far, has had a grand total of one entry (on the subject of Catherynne Valente’s “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While”). Today marks the second entry in that occasional series.
I recently finished reading Lev Grossman‘s send-up to the fantasy genre: The Magicians. It was an interesting read – I enjoyed it but, as I say, with caveats – and at about the two-thirds mark I resolved to blog about my reactions to the book: what I liked and what I disliked and why.
I’m going to start this off with a relatively spoiler-free review of the book, in a general sense, before I load up with an extra helping of spoilers and do the in-depth analysis that someday if this series ever gets more than two entries will be thought the hallmark of the “Interrogating the Text” series. I’ll be breaking this down, then, into two posts. One for the review, and one for the spoilery analysis.
So… Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I liked it, but with caveats. I keep saying that. What does that mean? It means that I found the writing and story to be engaging and interesting. It was very well-written, stylistically. The prose was at times poetic, clean, and evocative. I kept reading because I found I had to know what happened next. And yet, at the end of the story, I wasn’t satisfied. I wasn’t happy. I felt empty, like something had been stolen from me. The ending, while consistent with the novel as a whole, was profoundly disappointing and sad. I’m pretty sure this was intentional. the world Lev Grossman paints doesn’t allow for happy endings, and indeed a happy ending would have been contrary to the central thesis of his work.
But I get ahead of myself. What, exactly, is The Magicians about? The Magicians is one part “Harry Potter“, one part “Chronicles of Narnia“, one part “adult themes” and one part “melancholic, relatively-mainstream literary novel”. The buzz and marketing on the novel is pretty clear on these points. The main character, Quentin Coldwater, grew up a huge fan of book-series-within-a-book “Fillory and Further” – an analog of the “Narnia” books. As he nears high school graduation, he discovers that magic is real – not the guessing which card you pulled or pulling coins out of your ear variety (for which Quentin has exhibited a talent), but the altering the fundamental cosmic forces of the universe variety – and is admitted to a college-level boarding school called Brakebill’s Academy. Much sex, drugs, and magic ensue. But this world of magic fills Quentin with existential ennui. And then he discovers that the world of his childhood fantasies, Fillory, is real.
Let me get this out of the way before going on. The Magicians is an adult novel. As mentioned above, there is some sex. Most of the sex scenes in the book are of the “fade to black” variety, meaning that while it’s very clear that the characters are about to have or recently had sex, the sex itself is typically not described. When it is described, it’s not overtly graphic. There is also a great deal of alcohol use in this book – none of it, by my calculation, by minors. There is also a very small amount of drug use mentioned in the book. As a reader, you’ll need to decide your comfort level with these things before picking up the book. I say this because I know a lot of fantasy readers won’t be used to or expecting these sorts of things in a fantasy book, and it’s possible some might find them objectionable. But I’m fairly reserved in that regard, and while I found it at times surprising in this book, I never found it to be excessive or graphic – and indeed sexual improprieties (and the adverse consequences thereof) play a significant role in the plot, as does the deleterious effects of too-copious use of alcohol, so I found the book’s use of these elements not to be egregious in any way. Regardless, whatever your thoughts on the subject, you’ve been forewarned. Right? Good. Now, where was I? Ah yes. Fillory is real.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Quentin and his friends eventually travel to Fillory. Although that fateful event does not occur until about two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through the novel, it’s front-billed on the dust jacket.
Quentin’s story at times reads as an allegory for (and a critique of) the world of the uber-privileged, the wealthy, the elites, and the Ivy League-educated. Even before Quentin learns of his capacity to become a Magician, he’s already on track for the Ivy League life. He and his mundane-world New Yorker friends all expect to go to top colleges. But the very idea of this life fills Quentin with… what’s the word…? Oh yeah: ennui. (You’re going to see a lot of that word, and it’s kissing cousin, “existential”, in this review.) Basically, Quentin’s life lacks for nothing – he already has all the creature comforts and privelege he could stand – nothing, that is, except meaning.
What the novel is about – what it’s really about – is finding meaning in a world that refuses to deliver this one thing to you on a silver platter, a world that is fundamentally devoid of any meaning at all. (The majority of Grossman’s characters in this novel decline to exhibit any theistic or religious idealogy; magic, for them, is just another another cosmic force in the universe, albeit one that can be manipulated by humans by some adherence to arcane and goldbergian rituals and rules.) Fillory is held out for Quentin, throughout the novel, as a proverbial carrot, promising the source of meaning that his life lacks. In Fillory, after all, morality is very black-and-white, gods are real, and good always triumphs over evil – isn’t it?
While the novel seems to sharply criticize the world of power, wealth, and privilege, it also frequently revels in the trappings of that world. It’s not a something that I can easily relate to, and I got lost more than once when the book went on about such thing. For instance, the language used to refer to the various obscure or hiqh-quality alcoholic libations that the characters frequently imbibe is entirely opaque to me. I know the basics, but the book makes frequent reference to mixed drinks and brand names I’ve never heard of. This is but one example, but there are other instances where the book dwells overlong on things that those in the plebeian masses have no experience in, and no vocabulary to comprehend. These times, more than anything, threatened to push me out of the novel’s world, and threatened my suspension of disbelief. At these times, I tended to gloss over it. It’s not that I have a problem learning new words or expanding my vocabulary… but I felt so disconnected from that alternate universe of power and privilege that those things felt like an affront.
On the other hand, I appreciated the novel’s critique of existentialism. In many ways, I felt that The Magicians frequently aped another book I had read years ago, but disenjoyed profoundly because its existential theme left me feeling empty: Albert Camus’s The Stranger (L’Étranger). But The Magicians felt like a reaction against Camus’s book. Where Camus’s protagonist is entirely unlikeable in almost every way, Quentin Coldwater has at least one redeeming quality that makes his story more compelling: hope and a nearly unwavering faith in the idea of Fillory. His existential ennui gets tiresome, and he makes some serious and baffling mistakes. In many ways, Quentin Coldwater and most of his magician friends are unlikeable people. Angst-ridden, capricious and at times malicious to one another, they are spectacularly gifted and privileged with power beyond mortal comprehension – and yet their only ambition is to manipulate each other, ruin their friends and their relationships, and obliterate themselves with alcohol.
But still. They have magic. And there’s that whole “Fillory” thing hanging over the novel. Yes, it’s a given that we’ll learn that Fillory is anything but the simple, black-and-white, cut-and-dried world that Quentin believes in. It’s a given that it will prove complex and challenging in unexpected ways. But there’s still the hint, the promise, of meaning – both in the narrative sense and in the personal sense with respect to Quentin and his life. In a way, when we get to the end, the book achieves that. But it comes at the cost of a happy ending. And the lack of the happy ending bothered me. It bothered me because it fed into the protagonist’s directionless unhappiness, and seemed to confirm his outlook on life. And it bothered me because although the unhappy ending was consistent with the foreshadowing in the plot of the book, it still felt forced, and there were a few plot holes left unanswered that were more than large enough to drive the Happy Ending Express through. So, I felt robbed. And I felt robbed because, in my mind, to fully complete the critique of existentialism in this novel requires a complete rejection of the pointless existential ennui that was the bedrock principle of the protagonist: his full transformation and character arc pleads for a happy ending to refute his prior unhappiness. Instead, the unhappy ending leaves the protagonist struggling to reject that part of his character even though his final fate more-or-less confirms the validity of his prior position. When he turns away from his unhappy, former self, it’s bittersweet, with an extra heaping helping of the bitter, and a decaf sweet.
At the end of the day, the fact is I enjoyed The Magicians. As I said: it kept me turning the pages, and propelled me to the end. But I liked it in spite of the characters. For most people, however, whether they will enjoy the book will depend almost entirely on whether they can stomach or sympathize with the profoundly unhappy characters of the book: and most of all with Quentin himself. While most of the other characters have backstories and histories that suggest some fundamental impetus or reasoning for disconsolate unhappiness, Quentin’s lack history or direction: it just is.
But if you can find a way to empathize with Quentin, or to connect with his character, even if just a little, then that might be enough to carry you through this book and to enjoy it for what it is. For me, that connection was Quentin’s devotion to the “Fillory” books, because they mirrored my own personal affiliation for fantasy novels, in general, and for “The Prydain Chronicles” in particular (which filled the role in my life that the “Narnia” books filled in the lives of so many others, apparently Lev Grossman among them). Make no mistake; I enjoyed this book, and I do recommend it. It felt like a meaningful and important book, in many ways, and has a certain gravitas that genre books (especially Fantasy and Science Fiction books) are often accused of lacking. It’s commentary on, reaction to, and update of the themes and ideas of Harry Potter, Narnia, and other touchstones of the fantasy and young adult oeuvre were often touching or clever, and if you’re steeped in that tradition, you’ll find yourself frequently amused by the references this novel makes. Just be prepared: though the book itself is enjoyable, and well-written and at times compelling, the ending is an unhappy one, and may leave you feeling dissatisfied.
Next, I’m going to go more in depth – by pulling out spoilers and specifics from the book – about why the book worked or didn’t work for me on specific dimensions. I’ll refer a lot to things I’ve already discussed here, but I’ll also elaborate on specific plot points throughout the books, and comment more specifically on the ending and what happened there. Stay tuned!