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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Magicians - Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman's The Magicians has engendered no small amount of vitriol since its release two years ago.  I'm not sure there's been a more divisive book released in recent memory.  Most of the negative comments seem to hover around the the novel's bleakness and the notion that it's extremely derivative.  Strangely enough, that's why I like it.  Grossman has taken the young adult fantasy genre, poked it with a stick, and then told a darkly beautiful coming of age story within that framework.

Quentin Coldwater is a brilliant and depressed high school senior. He's secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to Fillory, everything else is listless. As it turns out, Quentin is one of the few born with a talent for magic and is chosen to become a student at a prestigious (just ask them!) magical university in upstate New York, where he receives a rigorous education in sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: sex, alcohol, and boredom. But magic doesn't bring the happiness and adventure Quentin thought it would.  Then he makes a stunning discovery: Fillory is real.

First of all, Fillory is Narnia.  It's not even derivational - it just is.  Quentin's college is a university level Hogwarts.  Alice is Hermione (kinda).  Eliot is a gay Ron (kinda).  There are references to almost every young adult fantasy novel of any repute.  Many of Grossman's critics have called this derivative.  I call it intentionally subversive.  He doesn't twist the genre tropes so much as he uses them didactically.  The result is that there's nothing remotely young adult about this novel.  Yes, he uses a young adult frame work, but the thematic underpinnings are adult.

So adult that most of Magicians is disturbingly depressing.  There's very little happiness for any of Grossman's characters.  It's raw and real in a way that is so divorced from traditional fantasy.  Even Quentin's study of magic is benign.  In that way, I get why people pushed back on it.  To someone looking for a more adult Harry Potter (as the book was often advertised) there is going to be some intense dissatisfaction.  Unlike Harry Potter, where magic and "fantasy" are the point, Magicians uses these things as a thematic device to deliver a message - life is hard, even when it should be easy.

Quentin is nearly a nihilist.  He is a vortex of woe-is-me at a school full of tortured teenagers who until they became magicians were socially awkward and painfully excluded.  What Grossman is trying to do it well summed up by Quentin's professor.  He said:
"Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by others means, or until it kills them.  But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain.  To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth.  You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you."
Quentin, carrying this pain around is looking for an escape.  Go to any fantasy message board right now and ask, "Why do you read fantasy?"  The common answer is - escapism.  That's what fantasy is all about (or at least, was about).  Quentin wants to be able to turn the page and go away.  He keeps chasing a carrot for what will make him happy instead of recognizing what makes him unhappy.  When magic isn't enough, he tries love and then ultimately he pins all his hopes on Fillory - a magical land imagined in his youth.  Want to guess how that works out?  I guess I'm saying Quentin is a metaphor for fantasy readers.  He wants to escape so he throws himself into one new adventure after another.  Instead of escaping he just ends up ignoring everything around him.  Hmm, now I feel kind of insulted?

That's not to say that the novel doesn't have some "bright" spots.  Most of these are moments of comedy when one character or another uses some cultural reference to great effect.  As a fan of a few on-line shooting games in my youth, I couldn't help but blow milk out of my nose when I read:
"Or we're in some kind of really high-tech multiplayer video game." He snapped his fingers. "So that's why Eliot's always humping my corpse."
These moments are fairly frequent, especially later in the novel once Quentin and his "party" go on a dungeon crawl reminiscent (again, intentionally) of a misguided D&D session with a power tripping dungeon master.

And that's the rub, isn't it? The novel knows it's borrowing, bastardizing, and in some cases copying what's come before in an effort to parody it.  This clearly puts off readers that aren't invested enough in the genre to enjoy what Grossman is doing or are looking for the notion of escapism he's lampooning.

Despite all of the games Grossman is playing, the heart of the story is the coming of age tale and a tragic love story.  If he removed all the fantasy elements, the novel still has a fairly compelling story - albeit not remotely something the typical fantasy reader would be interested in.  If I had to classify all the fantasy novels ever written into "beginners, intermediate, and advanced" categories.  The Magicians would be decidedly placed in the latter.  Not because it's a difficult novel.  Grossman writes an eminently readable book.  But it's a novel written to and about fantasy readers , but not necessarily for them.

Even with my enjoyment of The Magicians I'm a little concerned about his sequel due out next month.  This novel stands on its own, but it only stands up because of the thematic game Grossman played.  To use the same trick of subverting the genre would leave me feeling cold.  Still, I enjoyed the first novel so much that I can't help but look forward to the second.  Color me cautiously optimistic.

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