The OF Blog: Lev Grossman, The Magicians

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Lev Grossman, The Magicians

When he left Brakebills for New York, Quentin had expected to be knocked down and ravished by the sheer gritty reality of it all: going from the jeweled chrysalis of Brakebills to the big, messy, dirty city, where real people led real lives in the real world and did real work for real money. And for a couple of weeks he had been. It was definitely real, if by real you meant non-magical and obsessed with money and amazingly filthy. He had completely forgotten what it was like to be in the mundane world all the time. Nothing was enchanted: everything was what it was and nothing more. Every conceivable surface was plastered with words - concert posters, billboards, graffiti, maps, signs, warning labels, alternate-side parking regulations - but none of it
meant anything, not the way a spell did. At Brakebills every square inch of the House, every brick, every bush, every tree, had been marinated in magic for centuries. Here, out in the world, raw unmodified physics reigned, and mundanity was epidemic. It was like a coral reef with the living vital meaning bleached out of it, leaving nothing but an empty colored rock behind. To a magician's eyes, Manhattan looked like a desert (p. 226)
It is dangerous to judge a book by its cover...or by its cover blurbs. Too often, the unwary reader may be burnt by the platitudes or by the comparisons. Too often readers are suckered in by the blurbs about how Book X is like Book Y, just more of it and perhaps even better. Too often, these comparisons are very shallow and the reader often feels cheated. However, the opposite can occur. Jaded readers can react to the praise with a "So what? I'm not buying that crap," and their negative reactions to the blurbage can hurt their understanding of a novel.

Lev Grossman's The Magicians is one of those novels that will likely generate a plethora of responses from both camps. There will be those who will be drawn in by the comparisons to Narnia or to Harry Potter, only to discover that it is something else altogether by its end. There are others who will view such comparisons as being a sign that the book is trying to leach off of the success of those books and thus they will focus overmuch on the similarities and not enough on how Grossman plays with reader preconceptions.

But none of this really discusses what the novel is. The long passage quoted at the top is meant to give a sense of one of the book's dominant themes, that of how "fantasy" means much more than just magicial vistas and wondrous experiences; the word also refers to the illusions that we create or come to believe in; the traps that our desires and self-pity may lay for us; the notion that what is "real" and what is "fantasy" can be conflated in ways that are dangerous and transformative. This I believe lies near, if not at, the heart of The Magicians.

The book covers a little over five years of time, from protagonist Quentin Coldwater's odd and sudden admission into the Brakehills School for Magic through graduation, post-graduate ennui, to a very real and terrifying encounter with a magical land, Fillory, that Quentin had hoped for years was a "real" place. For some, Brakehills might, with its traditions, separate branches of study, and even its special sport, might seem like a carbon copy of Hogwarts transferred to an American collegiate setting. The surface similarities are not an accident; I suspect Grossman purposely wanted to create the illusion of something "familiar" so he could then deconstruct it. There are certain events through the lengthy Part I (which comprises just over half of the novel) that show the consequences of believing that magic is somehow "safe" and that by practicing magic, the practitioners would somehow be aloof from the concerns of the world.

Instead, Grossman explores the consequences of trying to fit in, of how adolescents explore their environs in ways that may be self-destructive. His depictions of Quentin and his cohorts, several of whom come to have vivid, distinct personalities despite the overwhelming focus being on Quentin's self-discovery, read more like a modern form of The Catcher in the Rye than like anything to be found in magical school novels like the Harry Potter stories. While some may find Quentin's brooding and self-loathing to be a bit much, I found myself being reminded of my own experiences in college and of those who were my friends and acquaintances. This led to a connection with the characters that deepened as the story expanded from the Brakehills setting into post-graduation life in New York in Part II and then in the final parts, to Fillory and its aftermath.

Grossman's story subtly expanded its scope as it progressed. After all, a good portion of what young adults learn in life is not learned at school and the lessons that Quentin and his friends learned were, in many respects, devastating. This was not a "safe" story, nor did Grossman tell it in a "safe" fashion. The characters swear, they fuck, they betray and are betrayed, and their various self-illusions ultimately are stripped from them. It is an uncompromising view of adolescence and the lessons that so many adolescents learn as they mature into adults. The scars that are given in this story are graphic; this is not a novel for those who want an "escape" from certain uncomfortable facets of human existence.

Although some might find the prose to be a bit uneven at times, I found for the majority of the time that the descriptive, almost florid scenes, such as the one quoted above, served to accentuate the emotions that Quentin was experiencing. Grossman varies the pace and structure of his sentences and paragraphs well, creating a sense that the character's thoughts were as haphazard as the prose appeared to be at first glance. It added to the experience and I rarely felt that Grossman was lingering too long in one place or rushing through to get to the finale.

Speaking of the "finale," the story ends on a cliffhanger of sorts. The damage has been leveled and the recupuration appears to be set to begin. Such endings are tricky ones, as they can leave the reader feeling dissatisfied, wondering if the 400 page novel were but a prologue, but for me, the novel felt as though I had read of one youth's survival of his previous life and self and that the stage was now set for an interesting character study that would play off of the fantasy tropes that had been explored over the course of this first novel. I am eager to see what lies in store for Quentin and his friends after their experiences. I can't help but want to see how the characters will grow after their harrowing adventures and their losses. C'est la vie, no?

Publisher: Viking Books (US)

Release Date: August 11, 2009 (US)


Anonymous said...

Great review Larry; way more concise and well-put than my own. I think your comments about the expectations by the book's press blurbs and x/y comparisons are spot on. In particular your comments on how the novel examines the relationship between what is "real" and "fantasy;" or at least how we perceive that relationship are spot on.

It has certainly been a novel that has stuck with me since I finished it.

Chad Hull said...

I'm late to the party...

I finished this novel earlier in the week. While I can admit that I haven't had much time to reflect upon reading the book, I don't think this story garnered the attention it deserved.

Zaldar said...

Also late to the party but man this was good. THIS is the kind of fantasy novel I would love to see as a movie. This gives the truth about how adolescence and many times adult life goes for many people, I also agree this book and its sequel didn't get the respect they deserve. Now to just find where you reviewed the other book...oh for a search function on blogspot that just looks at one blog.

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