"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler
Friday, August 10, 2012
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Quick and dirty summary: This is a story about Quentin Coldwater, a dissatisfied young man semi-obsessed with a series of fictional children's fantasy novels. These made-up novels are set in a land called Fillory, a clear stand in for C.S. Lewis' Narnia (and we as readers are abundantly meant to catch the homage). Quentin foregoes an Ivy League education to attend Breakbills, a Hogwarts-like college for magicians. After graduation, he has the post-college experience that many talented and aimless graduates have: he wastes his time in Brooklynn with sex and drinking. Before long, he and his friends discover that Fillory is, in fact, a real place, and they embark on adventures there. Along the way there's some drinking, some discovery of sex, some animal transformation, some magic sporting events, some monster attacks, etc etc etc.
Grossman takes Fantasy seriously here. By which I mean he tries hard to get at what real young adults might really think of the Harry Potter and Narnia universes if they found themselves there. Quentin, for all his initial excitement at each new stage of his life, finds most of the journey unsatisfying or boring. He is petulant and spoiled and ungracious, which sometimes makes him a difficult character to read. But he is those things in a way that I think most people can find familiar, particularly if they've spent any time around (or been a member of! hi!) the 17-22 demographic recently.
Quentin does eventually realize that the emptiness he feels doesn't exist at Breakbills or in Brooklynn or in Fillory--it exists in himself. And the solution to that emptiness is similarly internal. And I won't take this too far, but I think there may be additional significance here, outside of the personal significance to the character. Grossman understands that the longing for places like Fillory and Narnia and Hogwarts is in a sense a spiritual longing, and to have Quentin conclude that there is little or nothing that Fillory can offer that he cannot offer himself seems telling--particularly in the case of a Narnia (rather than a Lord of the Rings) stand-in.
This is a good fantasy book! It was better written than most, at least to my taste. This is a serviceable book about what it’s like to be a semi-adult. And this is a very good book about what its like to carry your childhood interests with you through life. There's value but also cost to leaning on things like Fiction to support your identity, and Quentin discovers that you're bound to feel disillusionment alongside love as you age.
The pacing is quick, but the structure is episodic, which means the pages can sometimes fly by and sometimes be excruciating, depending on the particular adventure underway. One scene in particular--where an otherworldly demon freezes time and invades a classroom--is just fantastic.
If you're ever in the mood for a fantasy book, but want a new spin on it, pick this up.
Also: I started reading The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead but stopped part way through. The beginning is fantastic and I'll probably come back to it later. Read this essay by J-Franz from 2010 if you want to hear more (you do!).