The Magicians by Lev Grossman
GUNN: How do you avoid reality?
VIRGINIA: Money. It cures everything but boredom and food cures boredom, so there you go.
Angel, "Happy Anniversary"
Several weeks ago, Publishers Weekly's science fiction blog got bent out of shape over the New York Times review of Lev Grossman's The Magicians, in which reviewer Michael Agger made statements like "Fantasy novels involve magic and are a little bit like magic themselves. To work, they require of their readers a willingness to be fooled, to be gulled into a world of walking trees and talking lions. They affect us most powerfully as teenagers, but then most of us move on to sterner, staider stuff." Such generalizations, insisted blogger Josh Jasper, were "so demeaning towards the genre as to stand out" from even the Grey Lady's general inability to grok it, and represented the belief that "Fantasy novels are suitable for entertaining uncultured teenagers, and require sneering at to make sure adults don't revert." Reading the review, I couldn't see the reason for Jasper's ire. It seemed obvious that Agger was using the term fantasy interchangeably with Narnia-esque, children's fantasy novels. A silly, ignorant error, to be sure, and disappointing coming from a reviewer for such a respected publication, but if one performed a mental search-and-replace on his review it--and the generalizations it made about the genre--turned out to be thoroughly unobjectionable. It was only once I read The Magicians that I realized that Agger's assumption that all of fantasy is contained within the seven volumes of Narnia is shared by the novel's characters, and perhaps even its author.
The Magicians is told from the point of view of a young man with the unlikely, storybook name of Quentin Coldwater. A seventeen year old overachiever from Park Slope, Brooklyn, Quentin is diverted from his path to the Ivy League by an invitation to interview at Brakebills, the American college of magic. The next four years and 300 pages of Quentin's life are spent at Brakebills, where he intersperses magical studies with the standard tropes of the college novel--drinking, sex, ill-advised pranks, his first hesitant and mostly unsuccessful attempts at relating to others as an adult, desperate attempts at reinvention. He falls in love with a shy, brilliant magician named Alice, and together they join an exclusive clique called The Physical Kids (named for their magical discipline, though these are rather vaguely described, and it's probably best to think of the different disciplines as Grossman's analogue to the Hogwarts houses). Together, these mundane and magical experiences make up an episodic, aimless narrative, but the former are amusing and on occasion even witty (of a classmate who conceives an enmity for Quentin: "He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog."), and the latter include the novel's most inventive, evocative passages:
Quentin was vaguely aware that, though he'd lost the lion's share of his cognitive capacity in the transformation, he'd also picked up a couple of new senses. One had to do with air: he could perceive wind speed and direction and air temperature ac clearly as whorls of smoke in a wind tunnel. The sky now appeared to him as a three-dimensional map of currents and eddies, friendly rising heat plumes and dense dangerous sinks of cool air. He could feel the prickle of distant cumulus clouds swapping bursts of positive and negative electrical charge. Quentin's sense of direction had sharpened, too, to the point where it felt like he had a finely engineered compass floating in oil, perfectly balanced, at the center of his brain.This is all very enjoyable, in a plotless, low-key sort of way (though it does raise the question of how the author of a novel this shapeless feels justified in crowing about the triumph of plot), but really, what is the point? Mixing Harry Potter with the college novel turns out to produce just that--two tastes that create nothing new between them. In the end, one has to conclude that it's the juxtaposition of the children's fantasy and the college setting that is the point, the novel's central gimmick, and that we're meant to be astonished at a Hogwarts-like setting that is bereft of high-flown adventure. It's an absence that seems to astonish the characters, most of whom are fans of the Fillory novels by Christopher Plover, a Narnia analogue about English children who travel to a fantasy world, and who explicitly state and implicitly behave as though they think Brakebills is Fillory, and that in entering it they have signed up for adventure.
Magic, the characters seem to assume, is not only going to solve all of their problems, but imbue their lives with narrative. A magical world, to them, is a world in which they are the protagonists of a Fillory-like story--straightforward, and divided into easily achievable good and instantly recognizable evil. To a fantasy reader, this is a perplexing attitude, until one realizes that none of the novel's characters are fantasy readers. When Alice and Quentin join the Physical Kids, they have to force their way into the group's clubhouse to prove their worthiness, and are told that "It used to be that you could say 'friend' in Elvish and it would let you in … Now too many people have read Tolkien." But it's painfully clear that beyond Tolkien, Rowling, and Plover, no one at the school--or at least not within Quentin's group--has read any further into fantasy. It's almost amazing how much of the novel would have been obviated if someone had handed these poor kids some China Miéville, or Susanna Clarke, or even George R.R. Martin. The lack of any awareness of fantasy from the New Weird onwards begs the question of whether it's Grossman himself who is ignorant of the many authors who have pitted the magical against the mundane, or whether he's posited an alternate universe in which these authors don't exist so that he can make his own stab at the subject unimpeded. Either way, the comparison is unkind.
The business of the novel begins in its second half, in which Quentin and Alice graduate from Brakebills and move to New York with the other Physical Kids, become miserable with boredom, and, as we knew they must, find a doorway into Fillory. As is so often the case, what seemed funny and charming in college becomes aggravating and off-putting in the real world, and The Magicians's quality drops precipitously in this half of the story. The disaffected aimlessness that was if not appealing then at least understandable at school turns into full-blown nihilism once there are no longer any demands on Quentin's time, and he and his friends occupy themselves with drinking and party games as they continue to wait for magic to inject narrative into their lives. Many reviewers have compared The Magicians to a fusion between Harry Potter and Donna Tartt's The Secret History, and it's in the post-Brakebills chapters of the novel that it becomes apparent how poorly the story about the lost wizard raised among mundanes maps onto the story of the out of place, working class young man who is sucked into an exclusive clique of rich students at an expensive private college.
Much of Quentin's initial attraction to Brakebills can be traced to its opulent, richly appointed campus. To Quentin, Brakebills's luxury--which, as it does in the Harry Potter novels, takes on a decidedly 19th century cast--denotes solidity, as opposed to the mundane world's shabbiness, and it is deeply important to him. His most vibrant impressions of Brakebills when he first comes to it is of its well-kept, exclusive beauty--the manicured lawn, the airy classroom in which he takes his entrance exam, the beautiful dorm room he's assigned--"The outer wall was stone; the inner was taken up with dark wooden cabinets and cubbies. There was a Victorian-looking writing desk and a mirror. His bed was tucked into a wooden alcove. There were small vertical windows all along the outer wall. He had to admit it was a highly satisfactory room."--and when he goes home on vacation, he finds that "his parents' house was unbearable to him now. After his little curved tower-top room, how could he go back to his dingy old bedroom in Brooklyn with its crumbly white paint and its iron bars on the window and its view of a tiny walled-in dirt patch?"
What's often left unsaid in fantasy worlds of the Hogwarts or Brakebills ilk is that the reason we no longer have these kinds of opulent, hand-crafted settings is that they were originally available only to a select few, and only because of the efforts of a much larger underclass. The mass-produced, automated ugliness that Quentin recoils from is the 20th century's answer to the disappearance of this underclass as more and more of its members began demanding to be the ones who had their baths drawn rather than the ones doing the drawing. When fantasy novels, especially ones that posit the existence of a secret magical elite, deliver this kind of opulence to their characters free of charge, what they're actually doing is using magic as a substitute for wealth and class. So that when Quentin expresses his desire for the solidity and beauty of Brakebills, it's hard not to see him as the middle class kid desperately trying to hold on to his position in a rich people's enclave. Except that Quentin is in fact quite well off, and only disdains his parents' Park Slope apartment and later their McMansion in the Boston suburbs because to him these represent a shabby imitation of Brakebills's luxury. He wants his wealth made, not manufactured--"[the curtains] were coarse-woven, but it wasn't the familiar, depressing, fake-authentic coarseness of high-end Earth housewares, which merely imitated the real coarseness of fabrics that were woven by hand out of genuine necessity." Quentin, in other words, is a rich kid who wants to be super-rich.
It's not exactly a sympathetic desire, but it is an understandable one. It's Grossman's choice to overlay the Secret History aspect of his novel--in which the desire for Brakebills is the desire for money and social status--with the Narnia reading--in which the desire for Brakebills is the desire for meaning and adventure--that causes problems, because it paints Quentin as the sort of person who is shocked, shocked to discover that in the absence of either the financial impetus or the drive to make something of himself, he is bored and miserable. It means that the latter half of the novel is made up almost entirely of the characters complaining that magic, for which read money, hasn't made them happy. It means that the characters mistake for deep, existential, untreatable misery what is probably nothing more than boredom.
When they arrive at Fillory, Quentin's friend Janet bitterly complains to Ember, the land's Aslan-figure, that "We human beings are unhappy all the time. We hate ourselves and we hate each other and sometimes we wish You or Whoever had never created us or this shit-ass world." This, apparently, is something we're supposed to take seriously--these rich, powerful, beautiful young people complaining about their terrible lot in life, and concluding that because magic hasn't made them happy, those who don't have magic must live lives of unalloyed misery only briefly alleviated by commercial entertainment and internet porn. The possibility that people might be happier, and more likely to find meaning in their lives, in the absence of the kind of magic that equals money, never seems to occur to them. No, the characters conclude, the fault must be in the world--"Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted? Its groping hands so clumsy? He thought he'd left this feeling behind long ago in Brookly, or at least at Brakebills. How could it have followed him here, of all places? … Or maybe this time was different, maybe there really was something off here. Maybe the hollowness was in Fillory, not in him?"
It is only Alice, the smartest and coolest character in the novel (though her coolness is somewhat called into question by her choice to spend so much of her time around these pointless, boring people) who recognizes that nothing will make Quentin happy--not Brakebills, not Fillory, not her love. That he will always be on the lookout for that unattainable perfection against which his good fortune seems worthless. If Grossman had ended the novel on this recognition, it might have been an interesting, if overly familiar, work. Instead, he makes the inexplicable choice to reward Quentin. After suffering a terrible loss in Fillory, Quentin returns to New York and leaves magic behind--for which read takes a made-up job at a magician-owned company and spends his days surfing the net and his weekends distracting himself with "the multifarious meaningless entertainments and distractions with which the real world supplied [him]." In other words, he's learned nothing. He looks at the world--full of people working, striving, building, learning, working towards something--and instead of learning from them, concludes that they are all even more miserable than he is. It would be funny if it weren't so tragic, and tragic if Grossman's solution to this predicament weren't so infuriating. The remaining Physical Kids track Quentin down and offer him another trip to Fillory, to take their place as kings and queens, and after some deliberation, Quentin accepts. The novel ends on this acceptance, and seems to expect us to read it as a happy ending despite the fact that neither Quentin nor Fillory have changed, and that the most likely outcome is that, once again, Fillory won't measure up to Quentin's expectations.
The more I think about The Magicians, the more inclined I am to compare it not to Harry Potter or any of a million novels about undergraduate or graduate ennui, but to M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, a novel which is so completely The Magicians's polar opposite that if their authors were ever brought together the universe might cease to exist. Like The Magicians, The Course of the Heart is the story of people desperate to inject meaning and narrative into their lives, a desire which Harrison treats with furious disdain and, at the same time, terrible sorrow. Like Grossman, he concludes that a life without magic is empty and meaningless, but that magic isn't sufficient to imbue it with meaning, and though I had nearly as much trouble with this worldview when Harrison expressed it as when Grossman did, I can at least respect Harrison for having the courage of his convictions. He depicts genuine misery and ugliness as opposed to wealth that isn't quite opulent enough. His fantasy world is a world of genuine, terrifying wonder, not a sanitized, easily comprehensible children's world with walking trees and talking lions. Most of all, he has the guts to take his premise to its logical conclusion, to end his story with the misery his world promises, whereas Grossman chickens out at the last minute, and ends on a cowardly, childish note. The Magicians turns out to be precisely the kind of fantasy Michael Agger mistakes the whole of the genre for in his New York Times review--safe, predictable, something that adults should outgrow. Far more than Agger's review, it is what's demeaning to the genre.