Saturday, June 1, 2013

Fair Warning: This review contains spoilers for The Magicians and The Magician King.  The third installment, as well as a movie and (sigh) a possible television show are likely to appear in 2014.

Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians was published in 2009 to much fanfare, followed
by the sequel The Magician King, which hit shelves this August. The Magicians traced thejourney, if not quite the coming of age, of Quentin Coldwater, a bright, bookish
Brooklyn teenager who, like many readers, had spent hours fantasizing about traveling
to Fillory, the magic realm of his favorite fantasy series. While attending a college
interview, Quentin finds himself magically swept away and given a mysterious
examination before being offered admission to Brakebills, a secret college of magic.
“Hogwarts, A Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin proclaimed, “was never like this.”

One of the major drawbacks of The Magicians, however, is its main character. After all,
disaffected, clever, bored young men aren’t exactly a scare commodity in fiction (or real
life.) “Something about his parents’ house was unbearable to him now. After his little
curved tower-top room, how could he go back to his dingy old bedroom in Brooklyn
with its crumbly white paint and its iron bars on the window and its view of a tiny
walled-in dirt patch? He had nothing to say to his well-meaning, politely curious
parents. Both their attention and their neglect were equally intolerable. His world had
become complicated and interesting and magical. Theirs was mundane and domestic.
They didn’t understand that the world they couldn’t see wasn’t the one that mattered,
and they never would.” One hates (or perhaps longs) to point out to Quentin that this
is hardly an unusual feeling for college students returning home, even those studying
English or engineering rather than magical theory. Instead, Grossman seems to expect
us to take this rather facile, immature snobbishness at face value.

When fantasy interacts with the real world, the author can either use that magic to
illuminate or to isolate. The Magicians is a profoundly isolating book. Professor Fogg
(neither as twinkly-eyed nor as Machiavellian as a certain Albus Dumbledore) tells his
students, “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.” As a world-building theme, this comes off as not so much as darkness as
adolescent self-absorption, Holden Caulfield raging against phonies with a
supernatural justification of superiority. Doesn’t everyone want to believe, at least once
in awhile, that their pain is more meaningful than everyone else’s? Isn’t part of
growing up learning that it isn’t the case? The magic of Brakebills seems to offer a
perpetual adolescent self-centeredness, without much hope or need to move past that.
It’s interesting that among the fantasy worlds Grossman consciously evokes, Neverland
isn’t there. Maybe that’s because even Wendy and the Lost Boys eventually decided it
was time to grow up.

If The Magicians was unsettling, it wasn’t because it exposed a dark underside of fantasy
literature that was heretofore unknown (it wasn’t); rather, it was the grim ordinariness of it all. Magicians, in Grossman’s work, have vast amounts of power, but they don’t do much with it. For the most part, they loaf around New York with no real ambitions or dreams, rather like Evelyn Waugh’s Bright Young Things or Bret Easton Ellis’s vapid, sociopathic yuppies, until they stumble upon a way to travel to Fillory, where, for the first time in 300 pages, the stakes become serious. The villain of the piece is revealed to
be far more like Quentin than he ever could have imagined--immature, cravent, avoidant, and alientated-- but it is Alice, Quentin’s girlfriend, who pays the ultimate price. Quentin returns to the real world--conveniently placed by Professor Fogg in a cushy consulting job--and does a face-heel-turn on magic
that demonstrates not wisdom, but the continuing lack of it. “To be honest, Quentin felt
superior to anybody who still messed around with magic. They could delude
themselves if they wanted, those self-indulgent magical mandarins, but he’d outgrown
that stuff.” At least for another five pages, before he decides to go back.

The Magician King begins with Quentin and his friends on the thrones of Fillory where--
surprise!--Quentin is still vaguely dissatisfied and unfulfilled. So he creates a makework
quest, which unexpectedly drops him back into the real world. Readers familiar
with Joseph Campbell might perk up here; per Campbell, an essential part of the hero’s
journey is that travels in the realm of the fantastic are coupled with a return home,
where the hero’s newfound wisdom or power become boons to his own society. Not for
Quentin, though. He remains profoundly uninterested in anything or anyone outside
himself until the very end of the novel, and his brief expulsion from Fillory seems to be
primarily filler for Grossman to mete out the backstory.

The best moments of The Magician King retrace the steps of Quentin’s New York
schoolmate Julia, the untold shadow story of the first novel. (Why, oh why, then, isn’t it
called The Magician Queen? Marketers--the same ones who urged J.K. Rowling to
publish under her initials lest little boys shun books written by a “Joanne” could
probably tell you.) Julia was also brought to Brakebills for the entrance exam, but
failed, and her life thereafter is striking for its knife-sharp descriptions of depression
and despair. Furthermore, it is through Julia that Grossman actually does begin to grapple with a few elements of fantasy narratives that are often breezed over. Magic--at least, the
acceptable, Brakebills brand of magic--is capricious and alienating, and Julia exists in an
unusual Purgatory, aware of the secret world of magic but banned from entry for no
apparent reason. After Julia fails her exam and is returned to New York, supposedly
with her memory wiped and replaced with an ordinary afternoon at the library, her
stubbornness and steely intelligence set her on a journey far darker—and frankly more interesting--than Quentin’s.

“The problem was that Julia was smart, and Julia was interested in the truth. She didn’t
like inconsistencies, and she didn’t let go until things were resolved, either. When she
was five she’d wanted to know why Goofy could talk and Pluto couldn’t. How could
one dog have another dog for a pet, and one be sentient and the other not? Likewise
she wanted to know who the lazy fucker was who wrote her paper on intentional
communities for her and used Wikipedia as a source. Granted that the answer “the
nefarious agents of a secret school for wizards in upstate New York,” was not a league-leadingly plausible answer to her question. But it was the answer that fit her memories,
and those memories were getting sharper all the time.”

Julia spends the next several years on a desperate, wrenching quest, hunting through
back channels and internet chat rooms for some answers, painfully teaching herself
spells. It’s a process that destroys her health, her peace of mind, and her relationships.
It’s only when she finally gives up, transferring her energies to an obscure internet
message community for depressed geniuses, that the arbitrary forces of magic deign to
notice her. “She had tried to walk away from the disaster, to run away from it, she
really, truly had. She’d broken her staff and drowned her book and sworn off magic
forever. She’d moved on and left no forwarding address. But it hadn’t been enough.
Magic had come looking for her. She hadn’t run far enough or fast enough, or hid
herself well enough, and the disaster had tracked her down and found her. It wasn’t
going to let her go.”

Nor will the author.  Julia’s backroads search for magic eventually leads her and her motley crew of associates to invoke a god, and when the deity appears, she is violently raped.  To Grossman’s credit, the rape itself is conveyed seriously and without the subtext of titillation so often found in “gritty” fantasies, but it’s a clich√© of the genre nonetheless.  Furthermore, Grossman uses the rape primarily not as a narrative device for Julia, but for Quentin.  It is, disturbingly, the rape that gives Julia her non-human source of magic power, and Quentin, in what is apparently meant as chivalry, blames himself for not having properly taught Julia magic in the first place. 

Julia’s journey is thoughtfully depicted, so much so that Grossman’s final deus ex
machina climax is grossly disappointing and retrograde. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so
troubling if it were not so similar to Alice’s fate in the first book (sexual and emotional betrayal by Quentin followed by a self-immolating death), but it’s hard not to look
askance at the darkness of Grossman’s magical world when the most brutal and
devastating price has, in both books, been paid by the two strongest female characters. 
In particular, it makes Quentin’s angst and self-pity all the less sympathetic. Besides,
someone as obviously well-read in fantasy as Grossman should be able to do better than
simply reproduce the tired fantasy trope laying the burdens of darkness on his female
characters as means to enlighten the self-absorbed male lead. Is it any wonder some of us prefer princesses to endless scenes of supposedly gritty sexual assault? (Remarkably, high fantasy authors rarely devote such “realism” to the less eroticized medieval states of illiteracy or dental hygiene.) It’s one thing to assume that Grossman has been quietly poking fun at his own lackluster hero, but the totally unironic use of such a tired excuse for “adult” fantasy makes Quentin’s ultimate fate pale in comparison. The Magician King is clearly the bridge book in a trilogy, but it’s a long time to wait for this Lost Boy to get a clue.

Note: “The Victim Dilemma” at Ferretbrain comments further on the artistic use of abuse—that is, the abuse of female characters—in creating “empowerment.” 

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