Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Magicians by Lev Grossman: A Review

About a week ago, I first heard about The Magicians by Lev Grossman, and then it seemed to be everywhere. It arrived in our current fiction section at the library, and another librarian brought it to me so I would have the first turn with it. She thought it sounded like my kind of book, but I'm so bogged down in my reading that I waved it away.

Then I read an enthusiastic review of it in a blog that I follow. Then on another blog. Suddenly, I just had to read it. I couldn't wait to get my hands on it--although, of course, it had been checked out by then. So I downloaded the audio version.

I couldn't wait to start listening. I zipped through the first sections and was hooked. I couldn't wait to get further into it.

Somewhere along the line, things changed. I realized I couldn't wait to be done with it and try to forget it. Hopefully I wouldn't need therapy.

So what's the story about that made me so anxious to read it?

Here's what I heard. It's about a young man named Quentin Coldwater who's about to graduate high school and go to college--probably Harvard or somewhere Ivey League, because he's brilliant and competitive. He's also very unhappy and can't seem to find much meaning in life. One of his main joys since childhood has been reading fantasy books, particularly a series about a land called Fillory--which is more or less exactly the same as Narnia. As they say, only the names have been changed, probably to protect the author from a copyright suit. Quentin knows he should be growing up and letting go of such dreams and longings for Fillory and magic, but he can't seem to do it.

Then suddenly, something bizarre happens. Quentin receives an invitation to an exclusive, secret college of magic. Yes, if you're thinking Harry Potter right about now, the author probably expects you to. There are lots of similarities between Brakebills College and Hogwarts--except that Hogwarts is a magical, delightful place that children of all ages dream of going to, and Brakebills is a depressing, difficult, and frankly perverted place that this child, at least, wouldn't be caught dead in.

So. Quentin discovers that magic doesn't make him happy any more than his previous life did. Then he graduates from Brakebills and because of his magic, can pretty much do anything with his life that he wants to. He chooses to drink, carouse, and cheat on his girlfriend. He's not happy, you see.

The book was frankly making me unhappy, too, at this point. Remember Kristi's post about Revolutionary Road? It felt like that, only with magic. But I stuck with it, because I'd heard what was coming in Part 3 of the book, and I thought the payoff would come. I knew that Quentin would discover that the land of Fillory was real, and that through his magic, he could actually get there. There was even mention of the fact that one of the Chatwin children in the Fillory series (like the Pevensies in Narnia) had disappeared at the end of the last book. Because the author died before writing the next book, no one knew what had happened to him. So the logical assumption is that Quentin will go on a quest to find the missing Martin Chatwin.

Finally it happens. Quentin and his friends are off to Fillory. And they do find Martin Chatwin, only they weren't particularly looking for him. As usual with Quentin and his bunch, they don't really have a purpose in going there any more than they have a purpose in the rest of their lives. As the Fillory ram Ember (a disappointing stand-in for the great lion Aslan in Narnia) tells them, Fillory is not a theme park for them to come play dress-up in--because that's the flip way they are treating its struggles and wars, and the possibility of becoming kings and queens there.

The whole Fillory expedition is a disaster. And--I'm sure you'll find this shocking--Quentin is unhappy there.

That could pretty much sum up this whole book: "Quentin is unhappy." He never really gets happier--but my mood had certainly plummeted by the end of this book.

I'm trying to figure out why people I respect are writing that this is such an important book. Maybe it's one of those literary things I don't understand. John Granger, whom I respect and who wrote Looking for God in Harry Potter, goes on about the importance of The Magicians because of its attempt to merge the post-modern novel (like Catcher in the Rye) with fantasy. But then, a lot of what Granger and other literary critics say is over my head.

I understand that Grossman is trying to say that our fantasies, even if they come true to the letter, won't make us happy. That kind of joy has to come from somewhere else, somewhere inside us. I agree on those points. In fact, one of my works that has been in progress for decades has that same general theme.

The trouble is, Grossman points out that fulfillment of our fantasies won't make us happy or give us purpose, but then he doesn't seem to have a clue what will. Quentin is worse off at the end than when he started, because he's tried everything, and everything has failed him. True, at the very end, Quentin is finally ready to use magic again and to go on another magical adventure, but frankly that came out of the blue and seemed tacked on. I couldn't find any evidence of a change of attitude or any particular self-discovery. And if you're looking for anything spiritual, well...forget about it.

We've mentioned on this blog before that C.S. Lewis has identified our yearnings that come from fantasy as a longing for the eternal. Since Grossman doesn't seem to believe that, we're left with a yearning after nothing, as meaningless as Quentin's life. But then, Grossman may not think much of C.S. Lewis and his ideas, anyway. He certainly didn't make the Lewis stand-in character (the writer of the Fillory books) very admirable. The old man stole the Chatwin children's stories for his personal gain and was "diddling" one of them. Apparently, trying to hide from the man's perverted advances was what led to the child's hiding in a cabinet and discovering the passage to Fillory to begin with. Ick!

So what am I missing? Why do people who enjoy fantasy still seem to like this book, when it came perilously close to ruining Harry Potter for me--and I'm not sure I'll ever be able to look at Narnia the same way again.

I was listening to The Magicians audiobook on my iPod, and when it came to the end I couldn't move for a minute. I was stunned. That was a good thing, because the iPod promptly started playing the next audiobook in line. It was a book called Peter and the Starcatchers that I downloaded weeks ago because it was on sale and because it was narrated by Jim Dale, the fabulously talented narrator of the Harry Potter audiobooks. Suddenly, there was Jim Dale's cozy voice starting a story about Peter (destined to become Peter Pan) boarding a ship called the Neverland to start his fantastic adventures. I felt myself starting to smile.

Thank goodness for Jim Dale!


  1. Wow- you've talked me out of reading it. I can handle movies like this a lot better than books, because movies for me are less of an investment of my time and imagination. I get much more wrapped up in books, and this sounds like it is defeating the whole purpose of reading fantasy books. At least with Rev. Road, you know more of whhat you're getting into. Why read fantasy if it reads like a disappointing reality? Thanks for reading it so I don't have to!

    And I certainly don't want to read about perversions or have my real-life heroes besmirched, even if it is fiction.

  2. That does sound terrible. Actually, it makes my point, that the only thing in life worth living for, that will give us joy, is God. And filmmakers and authors who don't believe that tend to make depressing movies that don't fit the reality I'm living. Yes, bad things happen, but there's always hope when you have Jesus. These hopeless stories are the ones that make me shake my head and think, They're missing out because the answer is God. They just don't know it.

  3. The author sounds like the classic artsy pessimist who knows there's something wrong with life but can't seem to find out how to fix it. I'm reminded of people like Thomas Hardy, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. I love those three, but I'm not sure THE MAGICIANS is one I'd like to read. But from what you said, it sounds like the author was trying to say something, trying to cut through the idealistic/man-is-innately-perfect/the-world-is-a-wonderful-place-if-you-can-only-understand-it idea, which is very post modern. And if he has no faith, he has no insight on where the hope is, so he's taken the story as far as he can. I love sad books, because they make you think; even if you don't agree with the characters' depression, you're moved. And, hey, at least you got a good blog post out of it. ;)

  4. I haven't read this book. Hadn't heard of it until I read your blog. However, I've read a lot of SF/F/H in my past, and so I thought I'd put in my two cents.

    First, don't expect a non-Christian to write a novel that adheres to any Christian values... including hope. The author is going to write in accord with his own worldview, and Grossman's worldview appears to be one of cynicism.

    Curious, I clicked over to Amazon and read reviews of this book and others by the author. Apparently Grossman's work is always derivative. So that shouldn't be a surprise with his latest novel. Grossman appears to be a follower of trends.

    However, there are a lot of derivative novels out there, and the author isn't always to blame. Having been involved in fantasy myself, as an artist, writer, and online magazine editor, I read a lot, and I saw a lot that was trying to capitalize on the latest sensation. I almost stopped reading fantasy because for so long it seemed every new novel was a rip off of Tolkien. And then other fads came along, and all the new authors were ripping off the more accomplished names... and people were buying it! The stuff sold, and so publishers wanted more.

    There's nothing new about people walking into fantasy realms and finding them real--as a young writer, I was warned against that particular theme which was already cliche. Yet that didn't stop others from writing the same stuff and getting paid for it. Even writing series about it. Becoming successful.

    Bottom line in all this: a certain formula works and people buy it... so people ask for more and the publishers contract more... until the stuff stops selling. This is why we're seeing so many vampire novels in the YA market. Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon with Stephanie Meyers. So it shouldn't be at all surprising.

  5. A P.S.: the popularity of fantasy fiction relies upon a loyal fan base who demand more of what made them happy in the past. They walk around science fiction conventions in costumes depicting their favorite characters because they want to immerse themselves in those fantasy realms. They come back, year after year, wanting more of what they've come to love. No wonder the authors give it to them. No wonder the publishers still make money at it.

    What we really need is solid, well-written, God-honoring answers to the desire for fantasy fiction! It's no longer my cup of tea to write it, but we need to be supporting (and reading!) those who do.

    Robin, have you read By Darkness Hid by Jill Williamson? Have you ordered that book for your library?

    God bless,

  6. Kim, I agree with you about liking sad books. I don't think a happy ending is always appropriate. I do like sad endings that are somehow noble or cathartic, though.

    Diana, I know what you mean about the fans immersing themselves in the fantasy, dressing up and going to conventions. I used to be a part of that nerdy bunch myself, I must confess! I guess that's why I have trouble with Grossman's book. I've heard he's a fan of fantasy--yet his book proceeds to pervert and tear down all that I see as inspiring and joyful about fantasy. Seems like a contradiction.

    I guess the bottom line is as Melanie and others have mentioned. He knows something is hopeless and missing in this world without that spiritual/God element, but he can't identify what is missing.

  7. I thought it wasn't as good as it could be because I was constantly pressed against the notion that I was more creative than the author. Because...Oh, My, God...If *I* were the one with the magical talent and the brains to construct an apparatus that freezes a photon by myself...well...Lev Grossman has xxxx-for-brains that devolved to the typical Harry Potter-like devotion to baroqueness without the creamy nugat center of meaningfullness. Of course it's going to be nihilist!

    We're better off reading Greg Egan's Permutation City. Essentially the same topic, only without the Potterism, and with a way cooler ending.


  8. " True, at the very end, Quentin is finally ready to use magic again and to go on another magical adventure"

    I think that's an assumption. There's an alternative reading of the last sentence of the book which is completely at odds with this reading, and which I'll argue is much more in tune with the overall thrust of the book.