Monday, January 11, 2010

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Let's say that a hundred million people have seen the Harry Potter movies. Ten million or so also read the books. A million didn't just walk away, but kept thinking about the characters afterward, playing "what if"s in their heads. A hundred thousand decide to continue the story their own way, flooding the Internet with fanfic both slashy and not. Ten thousand insert a thinly veiled version of themselves as someone's best friend or new lover. A thousand decide that they could do that story the right way, and embark on a novel of greater or lesser originality. A hundred finish that novel. Ten have something possibly worth reading. This one is called The Magicians.

It's by Lev Grossman, whose first novel, Codex, looks like an attempt to be the "smart person's Da Vinci Code" as this book tries to be the "smart person's Harry Potter." I may be overestimating how smart Grossman thinks he is -- or, more specifically, how much smarter than the rest of us he thinks he is -- but The Magicians is very much a check-me-out, see-how-smart-I-am, hey-Ma-I'm-writing novel.

It's also the last book I read in 2009 that I neglected to write about at the time, and the one I regret the most; I had a series of now-cryptic notes sitting in a draft blog post and a vague armature for an essay rolling around in my head, but it never happened. I'll toss out a few disconnected thoughts here, but I read this book too long ago to really analyze it as I would have liked to.

The most important thing to know is that The Magician is vastly more mediocre than you may have been led to believe; it's not a great novel, but it's not an embarrassment, either. Grossman has not descended into the benighted land of genre fantasy and shown us all the way to glory, but he also hasn't condescended to us. The Magicians has a classy, literary package, but within is a real fantasy beating heart, and Grossman must know and understand what fantasy really is to have written this novel. So he may look like an outsider -- with his lit degrees from Harvard and Yale, his cultural-critic prestige at Time, and, again, that classy Viking package -- but, somewhere deep underneath, he's a geek like us.

I imagine Grossman's great realization while reading the Harry Potter books was about the kids at Hogwarts -- that they shouldn't be normal kids, as Rowling wrote them, but the kind of hard-core grinds that end up in elite schools across the world. The kind of kids who end up at Wharton or Choate or West Point...or studying comparative literature at Harvard and Yale. I suspect Grossman had a moment when he thought, I know exactly the kind of people who would be at an elite magical school, and these aren't them. And so The Magicians is about that kind of kid -- the smart, driven, obnoxious kind, the ones who always raise their hands on the tough questions, the ones who ask for extra-credit problems, the ones with a GPA above 4.0.

The Magicians is also disjointed, divided into three "books" with different story arcs and concerns, as Grossman's characters (primary among them Quentin Coldwater -- and such an aggressively self-important, lit-novel name he has!) discover Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, midnight-oil their way through it, and then graduate to become the Secret Masters of the Universe. (And that only covers the first book, more or less.) Yes, what Rowling stretched out for seven books, Grossman speeds through in under a hundred pages -- he knows that what smart, driven kids at school do is to study and work and then work and study, then, for a break, study and work some more...and reading about that is boring.

So Quentin and his friends grind their way through magic school like World of Warcraft players who've heard a rumor that a vast new expansion pack is coming soon; they're trying to do it all as quickly as possible to move on to whatever's next. And then they're done, and both Quentin and The Magicians cast about for something to do next. Like elite kids everywhere, they know that if they do the assigned huge loads of work, keep their noses clean, and show their manic zeal to succeed at all times, they will get to take entry-level positions in the corridors of power; they will get to be rich and powerful in ways we mere mortals can't even dream of. (There's a Goldman Sachs resonance there, which possibly read more bitterly than Grossman intended when The Magicians was published in the middle of a massive world-wide recession created by just those kind of smart, driven whiz kids.)

Another thing Grossman does well -- and which keeps the Brakebills section from feeling too short -- is to show the closeted, incestuous feeling of a small school or clique; Brakebills is tiny and so its students form intense friendships -- the word is imprecise when applied to such self-absorbed over-achievers, but let it stand -- and live intensely in each others' pockets during their school years. And those connections are as strong after graduation as the connections from real-world student societies are; these kids rely and depend on each other even when they aren't lab partners anymore.

Quentin -- and many other Brakebills students -- were first fascinated by magic through a series of young adult novels by the fictional Christopher Plover, set in the magic land of Fillory. Fillory is, quite blatantly, a very thinly veiled version of C.S. Lewis's Narnia, changed just enough to be different, or to allow Grossman to invent some details and allow some plot points. But, for any reader who knows anything about fantasy -- presumably thus including anyone who might possibly want to read The Magicians -- is clearly not-Narnia, and its not-Narnia nature is distracting, since not-Narnia is all it is.

And, of course, learning that magic is real only makes the Fillory fanatics more fanatical -- they're sure that there must be a way to get to Fillory, using the skills and techniques that they're studying so hard in school.

That leads to one of the major flaws of The Magicians: that all of the fantasy elements in it, all of its central fantasy-novel armature, comes at second hand. It's all formed by reactions to Hogwatch and Narnia, as if Grossman was more interested in those worlds than in making up a new one of his own. (A related problem is that Fillory and Brakebills might be both magical, and both formed from models in novels for a similar audience, but they're very different in The Magicians; they don't feel like they belong in the same novel, and it doesn't seem that Grossman has a real living world behind the separate pieces he shows us.)

My most cryptic notes say things like "villain is a big mistake" -- I don't clearly remember the nature of the villain, so I'll let September Andy assert that, and not try to back him up -- and "characters become quite stupid in Book III," which is a problem for the endings of quite a lot of novels; authors often have an ending in mind that only idiot plotting will lead to. I also thought that The Magicians had parallels to Less Than Zero and Bright Lights, Big City, though I can't now recall exactly what those were.

I'm not going to nominate The Magicians for a Hugo; it's an essentially derivative book, designed from the ground up as an exercise in showing Those People how to do it right. And, along the way, Grossman finds new holes to fall into and different snares to trip him up, even as he fixes what he clearly saw as problems with Lewis and Rowling. But it's a thoughtful fantasy novel, and is part of the Great Conversation of fantasy in a way that nearly all other books from "outsiders" aren't. I hope that Grossman continues to write fantasy, and that, the next time out, he doesn't choose someone else's book as a starting point.


Anonymous said...

You might be becoming my favorite reviewer.

Anonymous said...

His Dark Materials is my go-to recommendation when people have read the Harry Potter books and want more. Pullman is practically Nabokov, compared to Rowling.

Unknown said...

I must praise this thorough and cogent review of Grossman's book. I know you said you didn't really remember parts of it, but I think you capture very well exactly what was good and what was not. I went into the novel with high expectations, but came away feeling rather like Grossman's characters worn, ragged, and a little dirty.

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