ASIDE: I have been mulling over this post for at least two weeks. And to be honest, I am still see-sawing back and forth over how I feel about it. BUT – I must get this off my plate and get some closure dammit ! Plus: SPOILERS AHEAD.
When I was young, the next (big) town up from our non-existent village had an annual used book sale – it was HUGE (at least to my 8 yr old eyes). There were thousands of books, piled onto tables, stacked in boxes against the walls, leaning and supporting each other like so many lopsided towers of pisa.
It was amongst these giants I discovered Trixie Belden, (35 books – 10c a piece!) An entire collection of SESAME STREET LIBRARY books which included Volume 10 (featuring the Letter T and the Number 10, and the coolest story about a train and Bert & Ernie dressed up as a vaudeville villain and damsel in distress tied up on a train track…which didn’t seem at all odd to me until just now – as I wrote it out…)
I also found this book called the Mystery Beast of Ostergeest.
It featured a mystery beast, which wandered into town, and 6 blind scholars who tried to guess what it was. They poked it and prodded it and made their ‘educated’ inferences: a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree; they all encountered a portion of the beast and decided on the whole based on that. They were of course, all wrong.*
I still love that story – not only does it have awesome-sauce illustrations by the author, it is also in rhyme. Morals in verse have always been a weakness of mine (cough-Dr Suess-cough).
As I was reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, I was reminded of Ostergeest’s Beast.
Like a cross between Harry Potter and Narnia, but for grown ups (and possibly manic depressives) The Magicians is an intriguingly written story.
Also – it is LONG. Or feels long. Or Grossman has a way of compacting so much plot into such a small space, that it takes longer to slog your way through it than you think it would. I’m not really sure.
As a epub, of course, one really has no gauge of a novel’s length, (unless you are super investigative and check page number etc…which I have never been) and it wasn’t until I had been through about eight separate story lines and four years in the protagonists life and was still only 48% of the way through, that I got curious and checked. 402 pages – not HUGE – but if in physical form, the book would be a good inch & half in width.
My point: the book, she is DENSE.
Closely written, filled with more characters and people than it really should be, the plot is layer upon layer – like a towering victorian sponge, filled with lashings of cream and strawberry jam.
But trying to pin down EXACTLY what The Magicians is, is kind of like the blind Ostergeest scholars making decisions based on portions encountered.
At first, it reads like a grown Harry Potter or a Cinda Williams Chima, but set in the real world.
The plot coalesces around Quentin Coldwater – he’s thin, awkward and unpopular. He has two friends both fabulously confident and is in love with one of them (Julia) and spends his spare time mooning over Julia and practising magic tricks.
So you can totally see where this is all going right?
Entre to the magically invisible magic school that picks Quentin up out of oblivion, sets him on the road to magical famousness. As a premise, not that original. But it is well written and the group of characters that grow out of the magic boarding school premise are interesting-ish.
We follow Quentin through the ups and downs of school, graduation and then into the real world. It all looks pretty set – then all of a sudden – WHAM – a left hook courtesy of the plot police, and suddenly what was a story that included other stories is now Narnia on acid crossed with a nihilistic Breakfast Club. Complete with an alcoholic homosexual, a nymphomaniac, an overweight nerd, an irresistible (although who knows why) geek, and a brainiac.
See? It isn’t the sum of its parts – it is something else altogether, like the Beast from Ostergeest, but whilst that was a sweetly optimistic story, there is much about this book that is unpleasant. If you are after an allegorical or good-triumphs-over-evil-in-a-magic multiverse – you is totally barking up the wrong tree.
To be completely honest: Quentin is an asshole. He is a depressive, whinging, deeply unhappy person.
If you met him at a party, he would be the moaning myrtle in the corner who captures the unwary passerby and locks them into 30 solid minutes of monologue about how terrible his life is, how difficult everyone else is, and how he never gets anything, even though he works so hard and everyone else is lazy, but they get everything handed to the on a silver platter whilst he is overlooked every time…
All the while, the unwary party-goer is making frantic chook eyes at anyone to come rescue them, but is studiously avoided by all and sundry who have already been subjected to Quentin.
Yes, Quentin is unlikeable and has very little to redeem him.
Give him a fantastic magical boarding school and he will fuck it up.
Give him a manic-pixie-dream-girl girlfriend and he will fuck her over.
Give him an entire multiverse to explore and adventure through and he will examine his navel and talk about how so-and-so was rude to him on the bus that morning.
He is not the kind of person who DESERVES an adventure, or magical abilities or other worlds…which kind of makes him, in a subversive way, the perfect character for such an adventure. There is no higher calling, no big heroic gesture – there is just Quentin, whinging about his life, screwing it up and drinking too much.
He is probably (unfortunately) exactly how we would react to if we found Narnia at the back of a wardrobe. Or was enrolled in a magic school.
As humans, it would be nice to think that we’d step up to the plate, that we could save that world from certain demise and overcome the evil monster incarnate…it is more likely though, that we’d be lazy, self-serving, completely unhelpful in the midst of a life and death situation, and – like we’ve done with our current world – screw it all up.
But just because it is a commonsensical and un-idealistic view of one of the most popular of fantasy tropes, doesn’t mean I want to read about it for 400-odd pages.
And sure, it feels marginally satirical and ironic in its execution, but in reality, this doesn’t read like a story about magic and fantasy and worlds. It feels more like a disillusioned scholar writing about disappointment, disenchantment and unmet expectations after graduation, and then enveloping them in an allegorical sweater of another world.
The idea that college and diplomas and pieces of paper don’t make happiness (I know, total shock right?); that pinning your hopes and dreams on the expansion of knowledge or that the insular environment of universities, colleges and schools leads to bitterness and an obsession with trivialities, is relevant and bears consideration, but it is an unswervingly cynical outlook – which I found exhausting.
There is the occasional reprieve when Quentin, suffering through (yet another) navel-gazing episode, realises that happiness isn’t a follow-the-recipe-and-bake-for-results thing that he thought it was, or that no matter where Quentin goes, his issues, unhappiness and general penchant for doom-calling and sabotaging his own life will inevitably follow him.
“I should be happy, Quentin thought. I’m young and alive and healthy. I have good friends. I have two reasonably intact parents … I am a solid member of the middle-middle class. My GPA is a number higher than most people even realize it is possible for a GPA to be.
But walking along Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, in his black overcoat and his gray interview suit, Quentin knew he wasn’t happy. Why not? He had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness. He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come. He couldn’t think what else to do.”
The idea that magic is born, not out of talent or passed down through generations, but developed from disappointment, tragic occurrences and pain is an intriguing concept.
“I have a little theory that I’d like to air here, if I may. What is it that you think makes you magicians?” More silence. Fogg was well into rhetorical-question territory now anyway. He spoke more softly. “Is it because you are intelligent? Is it because you are brave and good? Is it because you’re special?
“Maybe. Who knows. But I’ll tell you something: I think you’re magicians because you’re unhappy. A magician is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it. Or what did you think that stuff in your chest was? A magician is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength.
“Most people carry that pain around inside them their whole lives, until they kill the pain by other means, or until it kills them. But you, my friends, you found another way: a way to use the pain. To burn it as fuel, for light and warmth. You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you.”
The occasions where Grossman ponders the philosophical nature of magic, the right of the individual to wield it, and its ethical consequences are (along with the earlier parts of Quentin at Brakebills) some of the most interesting parts of the story. I would get all caught up in the moment, only to have Quentin, or one of his 2-Dimensional paper-cut-out ‘friends’ ruin it for me by being stupid, acting stupid, making stupid life-choices, or whinging about said stupid life.
Other elements and plot points seem to be added simply for shock value (i.e, where all the students are turned into foxes and then overcome by the randy fox nature, all pair off and start mating with abandon…which was a little squiggy to say the least) and actually, as I write this, I am wondering why Grossman’s sex scenes tend to be so unpleasant? There is a cold, clinical, sort of repellant vibe that runs through most of the depicted sexual encounters that is…concerning.
The characters seem to use sex for a variety of reasons; because it’s there and available; for revenge; for substitution of who they really want; because they’re bored…
Am I too used to romance novels and their utopian ideal of love? Or is it just because everyone is so dang unpleasant, that ipso facto, the sex is as well?
I don’t know.
Even the ending, which is as you might expect, given the meta-fictional twists involved in the entire story, is unsatisfactory in the extreme. And the blatant add-on to set up for the next novel irked me just a bit.
But, probably because I am a total imaginary-world-girl at heart, and spent hours searching the backs of wardrobes for doorways to Narnia when I was young, I was exhausted by the constant unhappiness and (I am using the word again) nihilistic attitude of all the characters.
Do they learn anything? Not really.
Do they become better people? Not really.
Do I like them any more by the end of the novel? Not even a bit.
Do I want to have my childhood (and current) wonder and fascination with magic, multi-verses and thaumaturgy to be trampled all over by Quentin and his horrid friends again?
I don’t think so.
And of course, I understand, that stories and authors should explore different viewpoints, tropes and make new twists out of old plots… I understand that. I just don’t want to read about it anymore.
Life after magic. Apparently not a very pleasant place to be.
But life after Quentin? Makes me inifinitely more appreciative of Middle Earth, Never-ending stories, Narnia, arthurian Dark is Rising, and Enid Blyton.
And butterflies. And bunny rabbits. And Calvin & Hobbes. And jelly beans.
In fact – I am infinitely more appreciative of anything that will remind me I don’t need to take an outlook on life with an unhealthy dose of cynicism.
So thank you Quentin, for reminding me that I never want to grow up and be just like you.
Valancy: searching for parallel worlds in dark cupboards since 1985 and proud of it.
*I am totally not spoiling the ending of this story — it is just too cool for words…
Header Image: Vintage Poster, Howard Thurston: Master Magician, (July 20, 1869 – April 13, 1936). He was a stage magician who after a deeply unhappy childhood, ran away to join the CIRCUS. (Finally – someone who actually did it!) He eventually became the most famous magician of his time, with traveling magic show so large that it needed eight train cars to transport his road show. NOW that is cool.