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.