Friday, March 26, 2010

Magic for Intermediates

I read The Magicians by Lev Grossman in less than two days. I could not put it down. I read it on the subway, on the bus, on my lunch break, and until the small hours of the morning; I read it in the line at the DMV and on the elevator. I read it in the obsessive, giddy way I read about Narnia and Middle Earth and Wonderland and William Sleator's multiverses as a child, which is to say I read it just the way I imagine Grossman wanted.

The Magicians is a fantasy novel that’s about fantasy, and about novels. It follows Quentin Coldwater, Brooklyn native, type-A personality, and loner extraordinaire, from the day he’s first summoned to Brakebills college for magicians for an entrance exam in his late teens, to sometime in his mid-twenties. Quentin, who grew up on the Fillory and Further novels (a fictional series, loosely based on, you guessed it, the Narnia books) has dreamed since he can remember of escaping to a magical realm, and in the book we find out what happens when he gets his heart’s desire.

This is not your kid sister's magic academy.

Grossman’s prose has the kind of conversational effortlessness that makes any one element impossible to single out and question, a transparent lucidity that makes the images feel like they came straight out of a half-forgotten recurring dream. But what got me, what really pulled me in, was the magic, which was unlike the magic of any other book I’ve read. In The Magicians, magic is not a deus ex machina, a blessing, a duty, or a curse. No one knows what it’s “for”; it reveals nothing, or at least nothing conclusive, about good or evil, the nature of the universe or God or man. Magic heightens sensations, intensifies experiences, endows the ordinary with meaning, but in a way it's profoundly useless. Upon graduation, most magicians end up doing academic research, or undertake “massive art projects, manipulating the northern lights and things like that, decades-long enchantments that might only ever have an audience of one.” Some work undercover, for the government or other organizations, but in a world with “too many magicians, not enough monsters,” they’re not really necessary.

For these reasons, magic in The Magicians functions, for me at least, as a kind of book-length extended metaphor for literature, and the role that discipline plays in the lives of its oft-dissatisfied acolytes. This begins almost at the start, when the Fillory novels are introduced for the first time: “It was almost like the Fillory books… were about reading itself. When the oldest Chatwin, melancholy Martin, opens the cabinet of the grandfather clock… and slips through into Fillory… it’s like he’s opening the covers of a book, but a book that did what books always promised to do and never actually did: get you out, really out, of where you were and into somewhere better.” In Fillory, even the vistas look like the inside of a book; Grossman describes it as “a landscape as black and white and stark as a printed page.”

However, when Quentin learns that magic is real, he discovers that, like literature, it does not spring into being fully formed: “The same way a verb has to agree with its subject, it turned out, even the simplest spell had to be modified and tweaked and inflected to agree with the time of day, the phase of the moon, the intention and purpose and precise circumstances of its casting, and a hundred other factors.” Like an MFA student plowing into the revision process for the first time, he finds himself engulfed in minutiae, the stupid repetitive grit of learning. It is not “an orgy of wonderment”; it’s hard and it sucks. But life without it is unendurable. When Quentin arrives in New York City after graduation, he observes, “Nothing was enchanted: everything was what it was and nothing more. Every conceivable surface was plastered with words… but none of it meant anything, not the way a spell did.” Magic, like fiction, like poetry, spans the gap between thought and reality, between subject and object. Once enchanted, a deck of cards or a glass marble become an extension of the magician’s mind, just as a book is the extension of an author’s. As Quentin’s old professor says, “The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded. But somewhere in the heat of magic, that boundary between word and thing ruptures… Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.”

This conceit is heart-poundingly, throat-clenchingly, head-smackingly brilliant (why didn't I think of this shit?), and for a long time, as I ripped through these pages, I thought the novel would turn out to be an utter masterpiece because of it. Yet as I continued reading, I found myself distracted more and more by a nagging concern that quickly developed into a criticism and ultimately, crushingly, into a full-blown disappointment: the character development of Quentin's lover, Alice.

Everywhere in this book, Grossman calls into question our assumptions about the genre, from a scene where a drunk teenager prepares for an intracollegiate game, snarling, “Gotta get my quidditch costume,” to the impotent, helpless ram who is to Fillory what Aslan the lion was to Narnia. Our hero, self-loathing and melancholic, is a tour de force of psychological realism; no one could mistake Quentin for the aspirational champions of the kids’ books this references. But there’s one escapist trope Grossman has forgotten to send up. A girl who's beautiful when she takes off her glasses, plus brilliant and good in bed; a girl who never makes a mistake in the classroom or on the battlefield, but who's so disarmingly shy and self-deprecating you never feel challenged or emasculated.  A girl who waits around patiently for you to make up your mind if you want to date her, and then has no qualms of her own about leaping into the sack and the full-fledged monogamous relationship.  A girl who's never irrationally bitchy, never self-involved, never needy or demanding or shrill or passive-aggressive or petty or arrogant or mean.  A girl who never tries to defend her weirdo parents and shows absolutely no signs of becoming like them.  A girl who has no friends to compete for her time and attention, no bosom buddies whom you suspect might know her even better than you do.  A girl who has no sexual history worth noting, who never flirts, never cheats (unless you cheat first, and even then she doesn't enjoy it); a girl who puts off her own sizable ambitions while you try to find yourself.  A girl who loves you, only you, unconditionally, even to the point of death – and SPOILER ALERT, who in fact dies, tragically young, sacrificing her life to save yours just after you've tenderly reconciled and she's forgiven all your misdeeds... Well, that's a fantasy, too. And it's one this book doesn't question, not even in a metafictional aside, for all of its 400+ pages.

Grossman didn't make this mistake because he's a male writer; to say so would be letting him off the hook way too easy. Male writers have written devastatingly complex and conflicted female characters (think April Wheeler from Yates's Revolutionary Road, or for that matter, Emily Grimes from his Easter Parade: dude writes like a lady), and female writers have dropped the ball with their fictional counterparts big time (see my post on another magician novel, Susanna Clarke's otherwise masterful Jonathan Strange). No, what Grossman's done here is both simpler and less forgivable: he's allowed his imagination to fail. In a novel where he turns college students into geese, opens a portal in a Brooklyn vacant lot, fabricates a whole fictional world's mythology, and reveals a gorgeous parallel between the magic in books and the books that contain it, he fails to do the first, most obvious thing: turn one of his main characters into flesh and blood.

I still urge you to buy The Magicians, and to read it in the binging, breakneck, flashlight-under-the-blankets way it requires, and to allow it to gobsmack you with the resplendent unfurling of its many mysteries. Most books have flaws, and this one's strengths are as dazzling as a pyrotechnic display made by Illusionist magicians. But if the book's ultimate lesson is that magic is wherever you look hard enough, I wish Grossman had taken more than a passing glance at Alice. Right now, we only see her as Quentin does when they're on their separate treks in the Antarctic: at a great distance, and in a rosy light.


John Wiswell said...

I'm going to take that paragraph about the girlfriend character and use it as a checklist the next time I write a novel. Probably when I revise the existing ones, too. Do we get a quota of freebie bad traits?

The Chawmonger said...

Heh -- no more than three "perfect girl" traits, max!

Seriously, as long as you don't do what Grossman did and use ALL of them, you'll probably be okay.