Monday, September 5, 2011

"The Magicians" by Lev Grossman

Every year I ask my 9th graders to write sonnets. Of the many that have been written over the years, one of my favorites is a sonnet addressed to Hogwarts. In the poem, the speaker ruefully inquires about when she will receive her admissions letter. That poem came to mind recently as I thought about why so many read fantasy, and I decided that, for most of us, when we read fantasy, we do so with at least some desire to inhabit the world depicted. We imagine how much more exciting our lives would be if we could do magic, and despite the fear of a monster like Voldemort, we envy the sense of purpose and heroic achievement such an enemy provides.

But, in doing this, we don't stop and imagine what life would really be like if we--ordinary, normal us--knew magic. Would magic really be fun to learn? What if it were tedious, dull, and repetitive, more like memorizing a dictionary? And, more importantly, what is the purpose of magic if there is no villain to be fought? If you could have anything at your fingertips, how could you experience the joy of desires fulfilled? It is these questions that Grossman's The Magicians seeks to address.

The Magicians purposefully invokes popular fantasy worlds (specifically the world of Harry Potter and Narnia) in order to subvert our expectations for the novel's protagonist, Quentin. When the novel begins, Quentin is a disaffected high school senior. After mysteriously wandering in to an unusual examination and discovering previously unknown magic powers, Quentin is admitted to Brakebills Academy, a college version of Hogwarts. But even at Brakebills, Quentin is not happy. Learning magic is not fun; school is not fun (he doesn't even make BFFs)--it's nothing like the fantasy world of Fillory (a straight rip off Narnia), a world depicted in books Quentin poured over as a child.

Grossman goes to pains in the beginning to show the tedium and purposelessness of Quentin's schooling. The danger of Quentin's current path is seen in the parents of Alice (Quentin's girlfriend).  Her parents are magicians, but like many, they graduated without any purpose or goal in life. Their lives are meaningless.  This part of the novel is important to Grossman's message, but it also makes for boring reading, despite the strong writing.  After all, we read fantasy for the adventure and heroism! Instead, we get a whiny, unhappy teenager who spends a lot of time drinking. The ennui is so pervasive that the book becomes difficult to read (you can't help but thinking: what's the point of this? this is so dull... there's no reason for all this...)

In the last third of the book, the action picks up as Quentin and his friends discover a way to enter the world of Fillory. Suddenly the adventure that one expects in fantasy is present, but, again, Grossman subverts the readers' expectations. The characters are so desperate for purpose that they allow themselves to be duped into a quest, ignoring a central question: why does a magical world need humans to save it?

It seems like readers' ratings for The Magicians are mixed, and I can understand why.  I wouldn't recommend the novel to fans of Harry Potter and Narnia (or at least not to readers looking for something similar to those) because Grossman is not particularly interested in magic in and of itself. And though you want to like the characters, they're often terrifically unlikeable. The characters, instead, are real and more like us--selfish, cowardly, cruel--which isn't always pleasant. Furthermore, The Magicians hits pointedly on our constant yet unachievable desire for something more: "We're wired to expect the world to be brighter and more meaningful and more obviously interesting than it actually is. And when we realize that it isn't, we start looking around for the real world." It's true, but it's also depressing.

In the end, the message and questions raised are intensely interesting, but the book often isn't. When my husband and I finished listening to the audiobook, one of our first questions to each other was, "Would you read the sequel?" I still haven't determined my answer.

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