Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Quentin said nothing. He kept his face, his whole body, perfectly still in his chair. He looked at a spot over Fogg's shoulder. He was giving nothing away. Certainly it was the simplest possible explanation for what had happened last night. Part of him, the part he trusted least, wanted to leap on this idea like a puppy on a ball. But in light of everything else that had ever happened to him, in his entire life, he checked himself. He'd spent too long disappointed by the world--he'd spent so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn't the only world, and coping with the overwhelming evidence that it in fact was. He wasn't going to be suckered in just like that. It was like finding a clue that somebody you'd buried and mourned wasn't really dead after all.

While definitely entertaining, The Magicians is somewhat unoriginal and largely lacking in plot and character development. Normally, I find unoriginality to be a forgivable sin, especially when an author chooses to pay homage to great works, as Grossman did. However, combined with the latter transgressions, the work falls flat.

The trope of a dissatisfied teen finding a way out of his uninspired life into a magical world is a deserved classic. However, I find it difficult to believe that such a change would leave that character so static. Quentin, we are told rather than shown, does not change in a substantial way through four years at Brakebills or a year post-graduation. Watching Quentin retain his angsty demeanor despite these incredible life changes is frustrating at best and brought to mind another angst-ridden teen who wanders his way around New York. Even worse, the supporting characters were so flat that few of their actions made much sense beyond serving as people with whom Quentin could interact.

Where the book shone was in the description of actual events. Grossman embedded some details that captured the imagination and made the magical world of Brakebills (especially Brakebills South) come alive. Even the most mundane objects refuse to be familiar:
a silver statue of a bird that seemed to be twitching. “Poor little thing,” he said, petting it with his large hands. “Someone tried to change it into a real bird, but it got stuck in between. It thinks it’s alive, but it’s much too heavy to fly.” The metal bird cheeped feebly, a dry, clicking noise like an empty pistol. Fogg sighed and put it away in a drawer. “It’s always launching itself out of windows and landing in the hedges."
The gaps in plot development, however, leave one grasping for a thread to connect all of the events. Frequently I felt myself putting back on my teacher cap, entreating Grossman to show us rather than tell us that the students and staff had a hard time recovering from the intrusion of evil into their idyll or how the students drifted following graduation. Prior to these events there was no baseline for normal and little description of behavior afterward to indicate a major change. I would gladly have read a second volume in exchange for the missing details.

The most heavy-handed allusion (I'll use this term loosely) in the work is to C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. Had Grossman used this reference to show Quentin's values or inquisitiveness, it is one that could have been hugely successful. As it was, the repeated allusions simply made the eventual trip to Fillory inevitable. This adventure smacks of Quentin's last opportunity to mature, a mystery left to the sequel, which I still don't want to read.

Though I found the work to be lacking in literary merit, it is entertaining. The events Grossman focuses on are intriguing and the light treatment plot and character development receive make it easy to breeze through. I also have a strong suspicion that it would seem less contrived and obvious to someone who had explored fewer classic works, a suspicion largely confirmed by my sister who had not read Gulliver's Travels, Catcher in the Rye, or any of The Chronicles of Narnia. The passing nod to Harry Potter as Grossman takes his protagonist to a magical school provides an excellent point of departure.

P.S. I'm glad to find I'm not the only one who found this work lacking. Billy's only comment in 2010 was "fail," which I'll second.

P.P.S. My sister has indignantly informed me that she has read The Chronicles of Narnia. My mistake, sorry!


Brent Waggoner said...

So many people have told me to read this, and it sounds so awful. I love Narnia and Tolkien, like Potter, like pastiche, but it sounds so gritty and unlikeable.

Dani said...

I'm in the minority of people who cannot stand Catcher in the Rye, and I really feel like that had something to do with my feelings toward this book. I don't mind a misanthropic or unhappy protagonist, but there's something about persistent, determined unhappiness that really just gets on my nerves. This attitude casts a pall over the whole book.

billy said...

I have put much of this book from my mind in the intervening years, blessedly, but I'll try to expand upon my review from 2010. From what I remember, I hated Quentin. He was the absolute worst. But at the end..


when the Alice sacrificed herself, I felt for a minute that the whole thing was redeemed. It was a beautiful and somewhat Biblical idea (though I don't know if Grossman was going for that): that even if you suck super hard, you can be saved by the selfless gesture of one better than you (of course, there's much to be said about having the woman's main job to make the man be better, but whatever).

If it had ended there I would have been satisfied. Buuuuut then Quentin goes on whining for awhile longer, squandering Alice's gift, until Janet and Julia show up and invite him on some more adventures, as if this were just some kind of adventure-fantasy book. I felt insulted and annoyed by that whole part. I did not, nor will I, read the sequel.

Liz Waggoner said...

I love Catcher but I don't need Holden in Narnia. And I doubt Grossman is half the writer Salinger is.

Dani said...

Billy, this was exactly my thought. I didn't want to include spoilers, but I had hoped that this was his moment of redemption. She seemed to get through to him before that final battle, he seemed to appreciate her, her sacrifice, and the fact that he was still a magician and still alive. The end made it seem like that was not the case. I have some small smidgen of hope that the sequel confirms that. I'm not sure I can stand to read to find out.

Liz, yup. Holden has his place, this is not it. To be fair, Quentin isn't quite as misanthropic as Holden, and others may not agree with my lumping them in, but Grossman seems to be trying to categorize them together.