“The Magicians”: If Harry Potter was Doubtful
Reviews of Lev Grossman’s new novel The Magicians have touted it as a version of Harry Potter that adults can read without embarrassment (lesson: many book reviewers must keep sad company if most of the adults they know are indeed ashamed to be caught reading Harry Potter). Most of the novel may occur at a place called Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy and may contain playful references to “welters,” a magical game played by teams of students—but don’t be fooled: this is no romp through Hogwarts. The bitter, disappointed heart of the novel lies in Narnia—or, as it’s called here, Fillory. For those of us who, like The Magicians’ protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, always dreamed of finding that one closet whose back wall would disappear and usher us into Narnia, Grossman’s novel is agonizing: I can honestly say that it’s one of the most painful books I’ve ever read. And that’s a compliment—mostly.
When we first meet Quentin, he’s a high-achieving seventeen-year-old in Brooklyn, on his way to a Princeton interview. Though successful in academics, Quentin is troubled by ennui, and whenever he wants to retreat from his everyday life, he mentally escapes to Fillory, the magical land featured in a series of novels by British writer “Christopher Plover.” In the Fillory books, the five Chatwin children travel to Fillory to rescue the talking animals who live there from a series of villains, including the Watcherwoman, who traps “all of Fillory at five o’clock on a particularly dreary, drizzly afternoon in late September.” Sound familiar?
Grossman pokes some affectionate fun at the parts of the Narnia series that can come across as twee, but he has clearly felt the Narnia-longing himself:
“But there was a more seductive, more dangerous truth to Fillory that Quentin couldn’t let go of. It was almost like the Fillory books—especially the first one, The World in the Walls—were about reading itself. When the oldest Chatwin, melancholy Martin, opens the cabinet of the grandfather clock that stands in a dark, narrow back hallway in his aunt’s house 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 quite did: get you out, really out, of where you were and into something better.”
“In Fillory,” Quentin muses, “things mattered in a way they didn’t in this world.” And with that sentence, Grossman earns the right to critique Narnia all he wishes—because he gets it. He really does. He’s no Philip Pullman, derisive of Narnia simply because he hates the Christian belief underlying it. Grossman may not embrace Christian belief, but he understands that the longing for Fillory/Narnia is, in essence, a spiritual longing.
Quentin hopes, when he first walks through a hedge onto the campus of Brakebills (which happens to be in upstate New York), that things in life will start mattering, that the real existence of magic will grant significance to everything. The Brakebills brand of magic turns out to be rather quotidian, however: it involves hard work and monotonous practice. It can be extremely unpredictable and dangerous, too, as we learn fairly early in the novel. However, the possibility of great power and great danger doesn’t automatically grant the kind of significance Quentin is looking for (in fact, U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” could be the theme song for The Magicians). When young magicians graduate from Brakebills, they do many of the things that gifted college graduates often find themselves doing: drinking, sleeping around, and wondering if they have any purpose in life.
Only after extreme disillusionment does Quentin begin to wonder whether the lack of meaning in his life may be an internal rather than an external problem. It’s not the world around him that’s empty—it’s himself.
It’s difficult to move from this epiphany to a satisfying conclusion, however, and this is where The Magicians falls short. I’m not demanding some sort of religious conversion on Quentin’s part, but the novel ends with a rather blatant sequel-baiting note that also seems to contradict the rules of the world that Grossman has created.
The Magicians begins with an epigraph from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the magician Prospero’s famous lines in which he finally forswears magic:
“I’ll break my staff
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.”
The magician Prospero here resigns magic, but, more importantly, resigns his habit of using magic to control other people and to make himself invulnerable. It’s a possibility Quentin considers, too, but ultimately rejects, though we’re not quite sure why. Quentin doesn’t need to choose the same fate as Prospero at the end of The Magicians, but if he’s going to choose otherwise, we need to understand that decision. As it is, the end of the novel sounds a fairly hollow note of, “Well, at least Quentin’s still got his buddies. Yay for friendship!”
Most of The Magicians is made of finer stuff than this, however. There are certainly hints in the novel that Grossman may be as disillusioned with God as Quentin becomes with Fillory, but he asks honest questions. What is the purpose of Narnia for those lucky enough to find their way in? Quentin initially believes that being part of a grander story and possibly rescuing some kindly creatures will make his life more meaningful. But there’s more to Narnia than that, as Grossman suggests. Narnia can do nothing for those unwilling to confront the emptiness within themselves. At the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan tells Lucy and Edmund that the whole reason they were brought to Narnia was so that they may come to recognize Him, by “another name,” in their own world. The Magicians follows the excruciating trajectory of those who cannot find—or do not want to recognize—Aslan in our own world.
I think that from now on, whenever a serious book for non-children is release and that book involves magic, people will describe it as Harry Potter for Adults. They did the same with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel, which was more like a combination of Harry Potter, Jane Austin, and a history text, so thoroughly mixed as to not very much resemble Harry Potter at all.
The Magicians sounds like it would resonate well with something I just read, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but I think I’ll have to think more about why. Definitely something to do with personal emptiness and the quest/need for meaning.
I think that a lot of this “It’s like X for Adults” is a way to subtly put down work X, whether it deserves it or not. I myself have often described Foucault’s Pendulum as “like The Da Vinci Code for Smart People”.
However, I DO think that comparisons between Jonathan Strange and Harry Potter are VERY exaggerated. The two books have almost nothing in common other than that they involve magic.
For that matter, Foucault’s Pendulum and Da Vinci Code have nothing in common save for involving historical arcana (e.g. Rosicrucians/Templars, etc.).
That is the truth. But it never stopped me from making the claim anyhow. It was just a way to interest people in FP by comparing it to a book they already liked, while at the same time putting down DVC.
Interestingly, Grossman’s previous novel, The Codex (which I haven’t read), has been called “The Da Vinci Code for Smart People.” Perhaps it’s really “Foucault’s Pendulum for Above Average People.”
Ooh. Smackdown on Eco. Are you going to take that Mister Semiotics Man?
If it’s a smarter Foucault’s Pendulum, I’m not sure there’s a human being alive who could understand the damn thing! OTOH, maybe it could be accurately described as “Foucault’s Pendulum for those who are looking for a plot”?
BTW, I don’t think that Carissa’s comment was meant to smack down Eco. I think she was trying to say that The Codex was probably not quite as esoteric and opaque as FP. But I’ll need to check out the Codex. If it’s half as good as FP, I’ll be happy as a piggie in poo.
Yes, Tom interpreted my comment correctly.
One difference between The Magicians and other books that have been smacked with the “Harry Potter for Grownups” label is that here the author is intentionally and blatantly inviting the comparison (not just for increased sales, but as part of his artistic purpose). Grossman had an interesting piece (which I could have sworn I posted here, but I can’t find it, so here it is: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203706604574377163804387216.html) in the WSJ a few weeks ago about how many recent novels are blurring the boundary between “genre” fiction and “literary” fiction. I feel like The Magicians goes even one step further and blurs the boundaries between literary, genre, and fan fiction.
I finally got around to reading this last week. I found it phenomenal until the resolution, which, instead of doing what I want fiction to do (entertain me), seemed to deliver the most painfully obvious message imaginable: Life sucks, and sometimes you can’t do anything about it (even if you can do magic). Not only that, but it did so in one of the most painful ways possible.
I still think it’s incredibly well written, particularly compared to what I’ve been compelled to read over the last few months. But why does it have to be so frustrating?
The only section that I found really poor was the religious discussion between the one practicing Christian and the rest of the group. Each of the characters was supposed to have been the smartest in their particular area just to try the entrance exam, and much more so to get in. Yet this graduate, who is sober at the time, makes some of the lamest religious arguments imaginable, and is quickly demolished by his drunken opponents. That whole section should have been cut.
I finished The Magicians probably on the day that Charles commented. Good timing, us.
On the whole I found Gorssman’s book a thoroughly compelling experience. I had been concerned that he would be treading similar ground to what I myself was writing in my own new novel/project but was happy to see that there is really very little overlap.
Unlike you and Charles, I was actually satisfied with the ending. After all, what else could we want from Grossman, to suddenly be Christian? My reading of the finale was a bit different than yours, Carissa. I didn’t see it as a “Yay for friendship!” moment (after all, Quentin hated Janet, even if only mostly because she is the physical representation of his own weakness and fear of inadequacy), but really, I see it as “Yay for faith in spite of evidence!”
Quentin’s come to the end of his rope. He’s come to recognize finally (through Emily’s mania) that Alice’s evaluation of his problem is correct: that the problem is inside him, that he will never be satisfied because he is, deep-down, essentially broken. He’s come to see that there is something deeply flawed in his being. Then he gets invited to Fillory (instead of forcing his way in as they did earlier) and steps out in irrational hope. Though his former dream-girl will be by his side and he’ll be the King he always dreamed of being, he’s still Quentin—and therefore should have no realistic expectation of happiness. More than likely, it will just be Alice and Brakebills all over again.
Yet, he hopes regardless.
Well, Dane, when you put it that way…
First, I meant the “climax”, rather than the “resolution”. I just got stuck on the idea that it didn’t have to go the way it did. But the more I thought of it, the more I understood that it did. That didn’t make me like it any more, though. I imagine I felt just as Grossman wanted me to at that point.
I was underwhelmed by the ending because of Julia’s unexplained entrance (if it was sequel bait, I imagine we’ll find out eventually), which which so conveniently added the opportunity to correct (or repeat) the mistakes he made with Alice, and because of that “irrational hope” that leads him back to Fillory. The fact that it will probably go just the way things went at Brakebills, in SoHo, and in Fillory is almost a given. “Faith in spite of evidence” is a very apt description, and I’m not really on board with it.
Here’s why I’m on board with it: I can’t see many other honest alternatives. Either Quentin kills himself or lives a life of depression or pretends that maybe things can be okay anyway.
I’d be fine with any of those conclusions, but Grossman’s story cannot have a purely happy ending because it’s not Harry Potter. He spent so much time invested in This Is What Magic Would Be Like in the Real World that to propose a different ending would be to abuse his readers.
At heart, The Magicians is a reflection on how we deal with depression. And the way we, as a culture, deal with depression is to indulge in the fantasy that depression is not the correct way to understand the world. Grossman grants this and embraces it by having Quentin give up depression for Fantasy (for so long as it holds). He is, however, wise enough to refrain from giving us a happy ending. Quentin departs with Eliot, Julia, and Janet, but there’s nothing really exciting or joyful about it for the reader. It’s just Quentin skipping off into another fantasy.
This is why I was satisfied with the ending. The decision fits with Quentin’s character. He realizes that magic is not the problem and that the problem is probably within him (never considering that the problem may be existence, period). He can’t run away from himself, so he might as well try something new and see if it assuages his sense of discontent.
I should maybe clarify that I wasn’t “happy” per se with the book’s conclusion. In truth, I was pretty unhappy with the characters and their decisions from the point at which they graduate Brakebills and on. Quentin makes terrible, stupid decisions as if his life depends on making terrible, stupid decisions. I found the entire experience a bit depressing. From graduation to book’s end.
That said, I don’t read in order to be made happy and sometimes books that are overwhelmingly depressing and feature stupid, stupid characters (who are thus entirely believable) make for some of the best reading. I read to be provoked, to be made thoughtful. I’d say I don’t read for entertainment, but that’s not true. It’s just that what entertains me may differ from what entertains others.
I definitely had problems with The Magicians but those were entirely confined to issues of writing style rather than with story or character development.
Also, I suppose I’ll put in that I didn’t think Grossman ever planned on The Magicians ever being more than a single volume. That is, the book didn’t seem to want a sequel to me or be sequel fodder. Everything seemed suitably wrapped up. Grossman would need to experience a drastic personal shift in ideology or experience in order to have anything more to say about Quentin.
I suppose there’s probably an interesting story to be told about Penny, but I’m not sure Grossman currently has the chops.
Ugh, I just read that there’s now a planned sequel, The Magician King, that takes place five years later. It is slated for 2011 release. This is disappointing to me as I felt the book concluded perfectly and I’m pretty sure that Grossman can only damage his investment from this point on.
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