Interrogating the Text #2: Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” – The Analysis
Last time I picked up the pieces of this “Interrogating the Text” series and gave you a general review of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. But I wanted to talk a little about the writing lessons I learned from this book: what I liked, what I disliked, why I liked or disliked it, and what I can learn from that to apply to my own writing.
The remainder of this discussion won’t make much sense if you haven’t read The Magicians, I’m afraid. And if you haven’t read it, and think you might like to, this post will contain spoilers for the ending of the book. If you’re not sure if you’d like to, may I suggest you take a gander at my review in last week’s post, or this review here. And one last warning: I’m going really in depth here, so this post is rather quite a bit long. So settle in for an epic journey, if novel-writing-lessons are your cup of tea.
First, I want to make it clear, in case it wasn’t in my earlier post: I really enjoyed reading this book. It was compelling and interesting. For much of the book, it was a page-turner. But I wasn’t satisfied by it’s ending. Something felt off about it.
So let’s dig into that.
What did I like about The Magicians? I liked the book’s style: while not as lyrical or poetic, for instance, as the works of Cathrynne Valente, it was nonetheless composed with a very compelling and interesting style. It’s intelligent, and it makes no excuses for its intelligence. It comes with a clear literary pedigree, but instead of eschewing the conventions of genre or speculative fiction and especially of YA fantasy (despite being decidedly not a YA book).
I especially liked the manner with which the book played with genre conventions, and the clever use of a book (series)-within-a-book. The Magicians plays up the tropes of the normal-person-enters-magical-world (i.e. “portal fantasy”) at every turn, and cleverly lampshades these conventions several times. (For example, the Harry Potter books are mentioned by name in the course of the narrative, as is Tolkien’s Middle Earth.) And there’s a lot of cool meta-fictional layers to the whole idea of Fillory in the book. For example: Christopher Plover, the fictional author of the Fillory books, has a webpage. There are even web pages for “fans” of the Fillory series.
But there were some difficult things about The Magicians as well, and they relate primarily to the characters and to the ending.
The characters are somewhat problematic in The Magicians because most of them, with the exception of Alice, are to a greater or lesser degree unlikable. Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist, is so drunk on his own angst that he often can’t take time to realize how really great his life is. As mentioned in the prior post, his main saving grace is his unwavering faith in the Fillory books he so loved as a child – although almost all of the characters in The Magicians has read or is familiar with the Fillory books, no one knows them better than Quentin. There are times in the course of the books that Quentin forgets how much he hates his life and allows himself, as if by accident, to be happy – and these were some of the most pleasurable passages in the book. Sometimes these times are brought to an end by some circumstance of plot, or some external factor. But just as often they are ended by Quentin doing something profoundly stupid because he’s just remembered how he hates his life. From Quentin’s perspective, happiness is some nebulous thing that’s always just out of reach, always dependant on reaching some imagined place that is apparently unreachable. When he discovers magic is real, he thinks he’ll be happy, and is surprised when he is not. But throughout the book we get the sense that Quentin believes that if he could only go to Fillory for real, then he’d be happy.
His greatest errors number two: first, going to live with Eliot and Janet in New York after graduating from Brakebill’s. Where Quentin has the redeeming grace of his love of the Fillory books (as well as his love for Alice and his momentary lapses into happiness), Eliot and Janet are both less likeable even than Quentin. Eliot, at least, has an excuse to be unhappy and drinking himself into oblivion: his tragic backstory is hinted at, and he has already endured some very difficult things. Eliot isn’t so much dislikable, per se – he’s pitiable. We feel sorry for him. We figure he deserves better. But he allows the baggage of his difficult life to drag down those around him. Janet, however, has no redeeming qualities whatever, and the apparent loathing she has in equal measure both for herself and for her friends proves disastrous. But that loathing doesn’t even come with a lot of insight into her character. We are told it is because she always wants what she can’t have (and related to this, that what she really wants is Eliot, whom she can’t have because Eliot’s sexual identity runs counter to her own). But we don’t get anything to really get to know her history or anything else about her to explain it.
After Janet tells the story of the death of Alice’s brother due to some unrequited love – the telling of which she knows will be painful for Alice – I simply cannot understand why Quentin and Alice would continue to associate with Janet, in particular, and especially why they would choose to live near Janet and the others and associate with them after graduation. That little bit defies logic. By this point in the story, it’s been established that Janet makes it her business to manipulate and destroy those around her. So when Quentin and Alice take back up with Eliot and Janet post-graduation… it rings hollow and false.
Quentin’s second and most egregious mistake, of course, was betraying Alice and sleeping with Janet. All of which is apropos to the above statements about each of the characters. When Quentin does this, his likability drops like a rock, and he goes from being a mopey emo but somewhat-likable-because-of-that-whole-Fillory-thing to, well, a Grade-A jack ass.
Of course, there’s an intentional thematic link between Quentin’s greatest mistake, in the course of this story, and the character with which he commits this sin: both desiring, we are told, that which they cannot have, and both settling for destroying the lives of others around them since they can’t have it. And this act is absolutely crucial to the plot. Except, as I pointed out above, given the nasty experiences Quentin and Alice have with Janet, I find the whole thing implausible.
So that’s one aspect that bothered me. But I can forgive it, because even though it means that in reality Quentin is a total jack ass, and not that likeable at all, it propels the plot. And it suggests a very specific sort of plotline, and one that can be very satisfying if well-executed: the redemption story. Even though Quentin has proven himself untrustworthy, at one point in the story we didn’t totally hate him: we even maybe kind of liked him a little. So as readers, we’re open to seeing him overcome these demons of his own making and winning back our hearts – and maybe, just maybe, Alice’s as well. From that point in the story onward, that’s what I was looking for.
Except… what actually happens?
Quentin almost, almost, almost makes it there. But thanks to another series of slightly improbable events (Okay… this is a fantasy story so what part of it isn’t improbable? Work with me, here.) he falls short. And Alice dies.
Here’s the thing. The ending mostly worked, within the confines of the story. And ultimately, at the very, very end, Quentin finally rejects his pessimism about the world and decides to embrace something that is, if not happiness, at least is not composed of equal parts angst, self-loathing, and wishful thinking. But the ending didn’t satisfy me. And it did have two significant inconsistencies that bothered me.
Here’s the whole shebang of what went down. The whole gang has gone to Fillory, thanks to the discovery of the magic button that was described in the Fillory novels as being a means of entering and leaving Fillory at will. The possessor of the button is one of the three most talented students at Brakebill’s over the course of the novel – the third most talented, we understand, after first Alice and second Quentin. His name is Penny, and he also happens to be the very person to whom Alice turns to exact her revenge upon Quentin for his betrayal. But in Fillory it seems that both Alice and Quentin come to terms with their feelings – or at least it is made clear that they both still care for each other very much.
After completing an arduous and dangerous quest, the whole crew is dumbfounded about what to do next – something seems not quite right with Ram God (the Aslan-analog, who goes by the name of Ember). So, first, Quentin does something random: he uses a magical device the crew received upon first entering Fillory, which inadvertently summons a terrible, almost Lovecraftian monster called the Beast. He takes the form of an English gentleman, but what we know of him makes him seem profoundly unhuman. Now, unfortunately, the team must find a way to defeat the Beast. Except that since entering Fillory, most of them have been unable to fully use their magical gifts (because magic works just a little differently in Fillory). A lot of talk and plot revelations ensue (i.e. the Beast is actually the lost Chatwin sibling, Martin), and then we go into battle-scene mode. And things get improbable.
There are several problems with this scene. First, it’s set up (in a Chekov’s gun manner) that Martin Chatwin fears the magic button that brought the group to Fillory – he fears it because it can force him to leave Fillory and return to Earth, and then he won’t be able to get back. Except… after this point the button is never again invoked. The Brakebill’s gang doesn’t use the button to drag Martin back. Instead, Alice goes medieval-warrior-wizard on Martin’s tuckus, while everyone else in the group stands around and acts like they don’t know how to do magic, and just try not to get killed… including Quentin.
But that’s improbable for two reasons: first, the Beast was shown earlier in the book to be phenomenally powerful, able to enter Earth at will (by his own means), penetrate the Brakebill’s defence, time-freeze an entire classroom of students, eat one of the students alive when she breaks free from the time-freeze (exactly how, I’m not sure), and resist the efforts of the entire, highly-trained magical staff of Brakebill’s. In other words, even some of the best-trained magicians on Earth were no match for Martin Chatwin.
And yet he finds himself getting trounced by Alice.
Now, I don’t have a problem with Martin getting beaten by Alice. Throughout the book Alice was held out as exemplary, easily the most talented magician at Brakebills. But consider this, as well: Martin has demonstrated that he’s powerful that he can easily swat aside one of Fillory’s Ram Gods (and it is hinted that he already killed the other). And he reveals that many of the characters in Fillory are loyal to him: even the guides leading the Brakebill’s gang down into the D&D maze called Ember’s Tomb. And yet, for reasons unbeknownst to us, he can’t seem to enter Ember’s Tomb to finally kill Ember as he did Umber until Quentin uses the device given to them by one of Martin’s henchmen.
Basically, this particular plot problem boils down to an inconsistency in Martin’s power level. He goes up and down in power relative to the other characters as the plot demands, and it’s noticeable.
In the end, Alice sacrifices herself – to save the gang and especially to save Quentin whom she still loves – by casting a spell so complex and powerful that it’s power consumes her, turning her into what the book calls a niffen: which is some kind of ethereal, magical spirit. This is supposedly foreshadowed the in the story Janet told of Alice’s brother, who also became a niffen – accidentally, it is pertinent to point out – while trying to help his unrequited love. But this is the second improbability: why would Alice feel the need to do this when she’s clearly winning. From the moment the battle between Martin and Alice begins, it’s clear that Martin is outclassed. He’s tough, and takes a lot of damage, but he can’t gain the upper hand against Alice.
All through this battle, Alice is the only one of the Brakebill’s group casting any meaningfully useful magic spells. Quentin was beat down by Martin and longs to help Alice, but he can’t seem to lift a magic finger to save his life, let alone hers. As I said, I’ve not much problem with Alice being so formidable in this battle – she is, after all, the best magician in her class. But here’s where we’re arriving at the second reason this battle scene was so full of improbability.
Casting magic spells, in Grossman’s book, is dependent on understanding the various cosmological “Circumstances” that affect magic. Trained magicians on Earth spend their lifetimes internalizing and memorizing all the possible Circumstances so they can cast a given spell at any time in any place. The Circumstances appear to be infinite in number, but it also seems that the memorization of specific Circumstances will eventually reveal, to the astute magician, some sort of discernible but extremely complex pattern that the trained magician can thereafter intuit, allowing them to adjust their spellcasting for new Circumstances on the fly. Alice, is of course, particularly adept at this, whereas Martin is what the book calls a “hedge wizard”: a self-taught magician who only has a minimal grasp of the Circumstances or a limited view of the overall pattern, due to their lack of rigorous training.
The Circumstances on Fillory, however, are completely different, and this is why the Brakebill’s team has a hard time casting magic there. Alice is a master of Circumstances on Earth. Martin, on the other hand, has had centuries in Fillory time to master the Circumstances there. These relative advantages account for why the two appear almost evenly matched, with Alice’s discipline and mastery winning out over Martin’s self-taught magic.
But I didn’t buy Quentin ducking about like a wounded puppy, unable to help the woman he has finally realized he truly loves. Because while Alice was the most talented magician in the group, Quentin was talented enough that he could legitimately have been considered Alice’s main rival at Brakebill’s. The two both skipped a grade, together, and the two were the only ones to pass a grueling magical test at the South Pole. And in matters Fillory, nobody in the group knew the books better than Quentin. If anyone had been able to intuit the appropriate Circumstances on Fillory in such a short amount of time, Quentin should have been in that number. I find Quentin’s inability to muster even a simple spell in Alice’s defense so improbable that it virtually broke the ending of the book for me.
When all was said and done, then, it felt like Alice died because Lev Grossman had determined that Alice must die for the sake of his plot, and not because that’s what actually would have happened. It felt forced, it felt contrived. There were too many plot holes, to many openings, too many possibilities left unanswered to believe it. When Martin’s younger sister Jane – who has a device that controls time – reveals herself as the force that had been directing the Brakebill’s gang in order to match them up against Martin reveals that she’s had them fight the battle an uncountable number of times and that this is the best outcome she’s ever received, I don’t believe her. I don’t believe her because of those improbabilities and plot holes mentioned above.
And I don’t believe it when Quentin just gives up and pretends there’s nothing he can do about it. Quentin goes on to spend several years in Fillory mastering magic there. It even becomes, for him, a trivial exercise to kill a number of small rodents and then resurrect them with magic. (Nevermind the disturbing implications of a person who plays around with life and death simply because he can.) Quentin can bring things back to life on Fillory on a whim. And yet it never occurs to him to try to find a way to bring a niffen back? To bring Alice back: the woman whose death he spends the last twenty pages of the book moping over? He knows, for instance, that the Dwarves have the means to create a device that controls time. Jane Chatwin destroyed hers. Why not quest for another. Or better, when he finds the Questing Beast and gets his three wishes, why not wish for a new one? Forgive me, again, if I find this all very improbable. Essentially, rather than reinforcing Lev Grossman’s clear themes and thesis for this book, I found the ending instead to be internally inconsistent with the book as a whole.
And it left me feeling… unsatisfied.
Jane Chatwin’s last revelation of the book also felt like an affront: right before she disappears from the novel’s pages, she informs us that Christopher Plover, the author who transcribed the Chatwin’s adventures into a best-selling novel series, had been sexually abusing Martin. This, we are to understand, is the reasoning behind Martin’s psychotic break and sociopathy. This is an insult on two fronts: first it insults actual victims of real-world sexual abuse, dehumanizing them and delegitamizing the difficult path they follow to recovery. Secondly, it defames C.S. Lewis, for whom Plover is an obvious analog (seeing as how Fillory itself is an analog for Lewis’s Narnia) – and through that defamation* it insults fantasy readers generally, reducing our fandom to an illusory reverance for a sick, criminal mind. After reading a book that had just tried so hard to legitimize the fantasy genre in a literary landscape, even if it ultimately failed due to the aforementioned internal inconsistencies, this felt like a stab in the back.
And finally, I had one more nitpick with the book: the map.
The map in the front cover of the book ostensibly depicts Fillory. But it is entirely inconsistent with the world that is depicted within the text of the book. The Nameless Mountains and the Chinkly Bore, for instance, are shown on the map on the opposite side of the continent from where they are placed in the text.
It crossed my mind that this might be another meta thing: this is hardly the first fantasy novel in which the provided map does not jive with the text. Is it possible, therefore, that Grossman is trying to toy with that, to poke fun at this little foible of the fantasy genre? But it’s always just annoying as a reader, to encounter books where this happens. And it’s no less annoying in this case. Meta or not – I’ve no way of knowing – it feels cheap, and adds further to the problems of a book whose ending is plagued with inconsistencies.
Okay, so. I’ve got problems with the ending of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. Problems that took a book that was a compelling, thrilling read and… broke it for me in the very end.
What then, can I learn from this book, as a writer?
Since I’ve gone on, now, for well over 3,000 words in this post (which is quite more than long enough, by at least three times, for a single blog post), I’ll have to save “lessons learned” for yet another blog post. So… if you’ve made it this far, and are interested in what I may have learned about novel-writing from reading this book, stay tuned.
*Technically speaking, I know that a written or otherwise published “defamation” is called a libel. But “defame” worked better in this case, on a stylistic level, and also because this isn’t a technical, legal libel anyway since the book is, after all, a work of fiction.