Lev Grossman’s, The Magicians, 2009, was highlighted in a recent NPR feature on “Books for the Hogwart’s Grad.” It is an adult fantasy that begins with a 17 year old boy and does something no YA novel I’ve recently come upon has done – it nails what being 17 is really like.
On his way to a preliminary interview for admission to Princeton, Quentin Coldwater reflects on his life: 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…Quentin knew he wasn’t happy. Why not? He had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness…But happiness, like a disobedient spirit, refused to come. He couldn’t think what else to do.
In a passage that reminds me of my own adolescence, Quentin believes that “his real life, the life he should be living, had been mislaid through some clerical error by the cosmic bureaucracy. This couldn’t be it. It had been diverted somewhere else, to somebody else, and he had been issued this shitty substitute faux life instead.”
When he finds the interviewer dead of a cerebral hemorrhage, events catapult Quentin into “the life he should be living,” with dizzying speed. Walking by himself in the rain after finding the dead man, Quentin is transported to the upstate New York campus of the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy.
Grossman clearly has chutzpah to write of a school of magic in a decade dominated by Harry Potter, but Brakebills has little to do with Hogwarts. After a grueling entrance exam, Quentin begins his even more grueling, five year course of study with a small group of nerdy prodigies like himself. He’s as slammed by as much work as any freshman at Harvard or MIT. Magic becomes truly serious for Quentin when he casts a minor spell as a joke that sets off a chain reaction resulting in another student’s death. Like people in the real world who make such mistakes in youth, he learns to live with the guilt and “move beyond,” but it never entirely goes away.
Quentin and a few other students begin to bond, most notably, Alice who becomes his lover. Quentin, Alice, and most of their friends at Brakebills have been entranced since childhood by the magical world of Fillory, the creation of a 1930’s reclusive English author.
Stories of Fillory are woven throughout The Magicians, but grow in importance after Quentin and his friends graduate. They move to Manhattan, and though Alice buries herself in serious magical research, Quentin and the others settle into serious dissipation: “They had all the power in the world, and no work to do, and nobody to stop them. They ran riot through the city.” Happiness still eludes Quentin until he and the others discover Fillory is real and they find the means to go there.
The Magicians belongs to the adult “urban fantasy” sub-genre, and one of the characteristics of such books is a very realistic portrait of the gritty, day-to-day world we share, which makes the magic seem real when it appears. The Brakebills graduates pass the bottle while discussing what supplies they should pack for their expedition: how about parkas in case it’s cold? Food of course, and trade goods – what would they be? And weapons – handguns, and body armor, and battle magic, which they have to create for themselves, since it is forbidden
By this point in the narrative, every reader who knows Narnia, which Fillory consciously echoes, must be cringing at the thought of a bunch of armed and boozy, world-weary twenty-somethings storming the gates. It turns out the explorers were wise to arm themselves, for Fillory is a gritty realm where strange creatures kill each other for no clear rhyme or reason. When a human size praying mantis fires an arrow at Quentin, they realize this magic is not magical in the way the stories we loved as children are magical.
“This isn’t a story,” Alice says. “This isn’t a story! It’s just one fucking thing after another!”
Aside from a page-turning narrative, there is much to ponder in Grossman’s tale, and I find myself thinking of Woody Allen’s movies about movies, especially, The Purple Rose of Cairo, where a movie hero get loose in our world and is hopelessly unable to cope. In The Magicians, characters from our world are equally out of their depths in a fictional story world.
Clinically speaking, our lives (apparently) are just one thing after another, but making stories is an instinct we all are born with. From a two year old with stick figures, to the water cooler at work, to Jesus and Buddha, to writers of fiction, making stories is how we make sense of things. Lev Grossman offers a fascinating reflection on making stories in the shape of a story that keeps us turning pages.
Lev Grossman, whose day job involves reviewing books for Time, published the second book of his trilogy The Magician King, this summer, which has moved to the head of my book queue. Grossman is a lover, connoisseur, and advocate for the fantasy genre. He strongly resists the notion that fantasy is “less than” other types of literature in any way.