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Monthly Archives: September 2011

Sex in Narnia: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians

Book #23 for 2011: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

The Magicians is a difficult book to pigeonhole. It would be easy to call it an adult version of Harry Potter, but I don’t see any reason why older adolescents might not want to read it too, assuming their parents don’t mind that it has lots of sex in it, sex that’s not always heterosexual, sex that’s not always between just two people, even sex that’s not necessarily between human beings or members of the same species. It would be easy to call it a literary novel because Grossman, who’s a reporter and book reviewer for Time Magazine, is clearly a writer with literary chops who writes sparkling, witty prose and creates complex characters who wouldn’t be out of place in the literature section of the bookstore, but it goes places where literary novels don’t often go these days. Maybe the closest I can come to pigeonholing it is to call it a literary fantasy that borrows elements from Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia, heroic quest fantasy in general, role-playing games, even video games and puts them all together into a bildungsroman. (For those of you reaching for dictionaries, that’s the pretentious way of saying it’s a coming-of-age novel.) You have to admit that’s a pretty big pigeonhole.

It basically consists of three parts. The first is almost straight out of Harry Potter. A young man named Quentin Coldwater stumbles — not accidentally, as it turns out — into a concealed college for young magicians called Brakebills, which is physically located in upstate New York but has magical entrances all over the place. (Quentin gets there initially through a communal garden plot in Brooklyn.) Quentin turns out to have an aptitude for magic — that’s why he was allowed to find the school — and spends four years of college more or less perfecting it. He rooms with a group of people who specialize in roughly the same kind of magic he does (physical magic, they call it), becomes friends with them, and graduates.

In the second part, the group of friends does what most people do after college — tries to figure out what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives. They wander aimlessly, they bond with the people they love, they screw up their relationships with the people they love, and they drink a lot. This part is less like J.K. Rowling than it’s like Bret Easton Ellis.

And in the third part they go to Narnia.

It’s not called Narnia, though. In the world of The Magicians, it’s called Fillory and was written about in a series of books published early in the 20th century by an expatriate American writer living in England named Christopher Plover. Pretty much everybody in the book grew up reading the Fillory novels, but Quentin is absolutely obsessed with them and has grown to college age reading them over and over again. It soon becomes clear that Quentin is so deeply unsatisfied with his own life that the Fillory books represent a kind of escape hatch for him and he yearns to discover a Fillory of his own. And then to everybody’s surprise it turns out that…well, I don’t want to spoil things, but you can probably guess where this is going. In fact, I’ve pretty much already told you.

The Magicians is an excellent piece of writing, and clearly Grossman has a deep affection for the fantasy stories and tropes that he references here. The middle portion of the book, where the young magicians are making their way awkwardly out of college and into adult life, may be slow going for anybody who comes to this book expecting Harry Potter. (And I should confess here that I’ve read precisely one Harry Potter novel and one Narnia novel — in each case the first one.) Once the final quarter of the book begins, though, there’s almost more plot and more action than one could possibly expect from a literary writer, to the point where the book really does begin to feel like a video game in print form. There were times when I felt like I should be reading the book with my XBox controller in hand.

Because it’s the first in a series of books (the second, The Magician King, is already out) Grossman doesn’t entirely resolve everything at the end. Given Quentin’s lifelong desire to find his way into Fillory like the children in Plover’s books, it seemed for a while in the final section that the book’s theme was going to turn out to be “Be careful what you wish for because you might get it.” But since these characters are clearly going to get more of what they get here in coming volumes of this series, that was only partly the case. A clearer explication of theme is stated by the often depressed, often self-hating Quentin about 50 Nook pages from the end: “There’s no getting away from yourself. Not even in Fillory.”

What The Magicians really is, I think, is a YA fantasy for adults written by a literary writer for the entertainment of adults and smart kids. It’s not a realistic novel, by any means — there are giant talking bunnies and fireball spells in it — but its point of view is realistic and even when the bunnies are talking the main characters can see just how absurd they are and how even more absurd it is that they’re taking them seriously. This is a fantasy world with unexpected weight — and snark.

Grief Writ Large: Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers

Book #22 for 2011: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

In his New York Times review of The Leftovers, Stephen King called it “the best ‘Twilight Zone’ episode you never saw.” But I think King missed the mark there. The Leftovers isn’t really a Twilight Zone episode at all.

You’d think it would be from the premise, which is that the Rapture or something very much like it has occurred. A certain portion of humanity has simply vanished, flickered out of existence while performing mundane activities like eating meals, throwing tantrums and flying jet airliners. But the Rapture isn’t really what the book is about. Perrotta dismisses any notion that this is a melodramatic fantasy at the very beginning of the novel, where he deals with the Rapture itself in a few paragraphs of exposition and lobs off a subtly derisive comment in the direction of Left Behind, that series of crossover religious books that dominated secular bestseller lists several years ago, examining the Rapture and its aftermath in multi-volume detail. (I tried to read the first one not long after it came out and gave up after two or three pages, choking on the awful prose.)

What The Leftovers is about is how human beings react to loss, how they grieve, how they adapt to the hole left behind by a departed friend, loved one, coworker or even despised enemy. As in our own Rapture-less world, they cope in a number of ways, often by denying themselves any hope of happiness in a world that has changed seemingly beyond repair and even attempting to impose their own unhappiness on the world at large. The Leftovers could easily have been a study of how a family reacts to death (and, indeed, most of the book is about how a single family and their close friends and relatives deal with the changes in their world). But Perrotta seems more interested in grief and coping with loss writ large. His post-Rapture world is a lot like our own, with people spending much of their time playing hurt and not necessarily doing a good job of it, but there’s even more of this going on than usual

The Leftovers reminded me of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, which I wrote about last year. Like Rachman, Perrotta has a gift for writing about flawed human beings who turn out rather unexpectedly to be good people, ones that the reader genuinely likes, though it takes much longer to warm to Perrotta’s characters than it did to Rachman’s. (Rachman’s gift is that he can present a complete and satisfactory character arc in the space of a single chapter.) And, as in Rachman’s book, I was surprised to find myself deeply moved in the end. (I think it’s always better when sentimental emotions sneak up on you in a book. A book that dwells on them quickly becomes mawkish.)

The Leftovers is a very low-key, mildly comic novel, following the lives of well-drawn characters through a series of minor but telling incidents. If the book has a message (a term I’m not terribly comfortable with) it’s that the hardest thing to do in the wake of tragic loss is to give yourself permission to be happy again, but it’s also the most important thing you can do. Perrotta’s characters don’t always succeed at this, but you love them when they finally make the attempt.

9/11 and the Mind-Brain Dichotomy: Ian McEwan’s Saturday

Book #21 for 2011: Saturday by Ian McEwan

In the days leading up to the recent 10th anniversary of 9/11, I’ve seen several articles identifying this or that book as being a “9/11 novel.” Some of these were borderline cases, books where the reviewer felt that the fall of the towers loomed over the action like an unseen ghost, and I’m not sure that the authors of all of these books would have agreed that the events of September 11, 2001, had much if anything to do with their choice of material. But Ian McEwan’s Saturday is unquestionably a 9/11 novel and McEwan makes no attempt to disguise that fact. It takes place on a single Saturday in 2003, less than two years after the attacks, and they are often on the mind of the novel’s protagonist, a brilliant 40-something neurosurgeon named Henry Perowne. It also takes place on the day of an antiwar demonstration in London, where thousands have gathered to protest Britain’s participation in America’s coming war on Iraq. Perowne’s feelings about that war are mixed, but on the whole he thinks that the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein justify it, if not necessarily for the official reasons that the Americans have given. There may or may not be WMDs, but in his operating theater at the local hospital Perowne has seen the torture scars inflicted on Iraqis by Saddam’s regime and believes that such evil is best expunged from the face of the earth by any means possible.

McEwan’s novel is structured so that as the Saturday progresses Perowne’s awareness of the nature of evil becomes more personal, and perhaps more nuanced. He’s attacked by a street tough, first in the aftermath of a minor automobile accident and later in a more direct, terrifying way, and the final portions of the novel are about how Perowne deals with his feelings about this evil and how he should respond to it. I won’t describe what happens because it would be a spoiler for those of you who haven’t yet read the book and might want to. McEwan never really resolves the question of how one deals with evil in the world; he simply throws it into more vivid relief and demonstrates that the question is more complicated than one might suspect.

What I love about the novel, though, and what I also loved about McEwan’s Solar, is his ability to step back and look at the most deeply personal of human events with a kind of scientific objectivity. I use the word “scientific” here deliberately. McEwan clearly has a sharp layman’s knowledge of science and his surgeon protagonist is the perfect prism for viewing events through that knowledge. I gather, mostly from some things that a friend of mine has said, that not everybody loves this about McEwan, but to me it’s his awareness of the modern scientific understanding of the universe and of living creatures that makes McEwan one of the few genuinely modern literary writers. If the true dichotomy of the human condition is that we are both machines and beings with souls, that life is both mechanical and something that transcends mechanics, then I don’t see how a truly great writer can look at his or her subjects from any other perspective. It’s especially important that McEwan has made his hero a neurosurgeon — a brain surgeon — because of all the organs in the human body the brain is the one that most clearly has two completely contradictory yet simultaneously valid aspects. From an objective viewpoint, it is a bioelectric meat computer capable of stunningly advanced computation. From a subjective viewpoint, viewed not as a brain but as a mind, it is an object with an internal life, a consciousness, capable of perceiving the world not just as a set of data points but as a three-dimensional continuum with a past and a future that contain qualities — emotions, perceptions, what cognitive researchers call qualia — that are quite distinct from the sensory stimuli that create them.

It’s telling that the street tough who attacks Perowne is not doing it out of any innate evil but because of chemical changes in the brain brought about by advanced stages of premature Huntington’s disease. And throughout the novel we are aware that Perowne’s mother is slowly losing her grasp on reality because of the chemical, neural changes wrought by what seems to be late stage Alzheimer’s (though I can’t recall if McEwan ever mentions the disease by name). Both of these cases illustrate the mind-brain dichotomy, where catastrophic shifts in an individual’s subjective conscious landscape can be brought about by purely objective, chemical alterations in the delicate structures of their nervous systems.

But I’ll shut up now. It’s the very fact that McEwan is clearly aware of this dichotomy between body and soul on a concrete rather than mystical level that makes him, for me, one of the greatest writers currently working. He’s not unique in writing about the world from this simultaneously detached yet deeply engaged viewpoint, but he does it as well as just about anyone alive.