In 2009, you cannot write a book about young magicians without knowing that your book will be held up against the Harry Potter series and probably discarded. Since J.K. Rowling dropped her cultural bomb on us all those years ago, we’ve already seen a glut of second-rate wizardry series, just as Stephenie Meyer’s already-execrable Twilight Series launched a tidal wave of slapdash “vampire” novels trying to catch even a sliver of the current mania. Ironically enough, when Grossman did a piece on Meyer for Time, he gushed and flattered and compared her to Rowling1 in a way that will be important later.
Lev Grossman is not a stupid man; his admiration for Meyer notwithstanding (and I hold the hope that it’s more recognition of her pop lit. cachet), his book reviews for Time are usually pretty good, and he seems like an all-around sensible guy. It seems unlikely, then, that he would dash out yet another book about teenage wizards and expect, without any sense of irony, for it to be lauded and praised. No, what you’ll find is that The Magicians is one part pastiche, one part bildungsroman, two parts satire, and one part miserable, myopic teenage pop lit.
If you’re going to write about teenage wizards and magic in 2009, then, you have few options:
- Accept that you’re writing imitative schlock, like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson or Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap.
- Include just enough self-abuse and satire as to elude such charges; Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles are a good example of this, though of course they predate all the recent wizardry zeitgeist by a considerable margin. Grossman knows about Harry Potter and Narnia; his readers know about them; and even his characters know about them and reference them.
- Don’t really write about wizards at all. Believe it or not, this is the tack that Grossman chose.
Michael Agger, writing for the New York Times Book Review, said that the book could “crudely be labeled a Harry Potter for adults”; Grossman himself said you could “glibly but not inaccurately describe as Harry Potter meets The Corrections for shots of synthohol in Ten Forward.” It’s a specious comparison, even if done crudely or glibly, in the sense that the Harry Potter series is entirely about magic and wizardry, the characters of which happen to be engaging and dynamic. In Grossman’s novel, all of the magical aspects are purposely thin and facile, serving only as a shell for Grossman’s real interest, which is character drama and existential angst.
The Magicians begins with Quentin Coldwater, a smart but troubled 17-year old with an affinity for magic tricks, bumbling his way into Brakebills, an invisible school for young magicians. There are no 11-year-olds here; this is a college, with equivalent ages, and the entrance exam is difficult. Quentin, whose abilities up to this point included only faro shuffles and disappearing nickel tricks, manages a sudden burst of impressive magic that secures him one of twenty spots in the freshman class. Were this a typical wizarding novel, one might be inclined to believe that Quentin is secretly a master magicians, whose world-changing potential is just waiting to be unlocked, but this is not the case. In fact, Quentin is a screwup, at best a capable magician; his ultimate importance in the scheme of things ranks even lower than the main character, Thornmallow, of Jane Yolen’s Wizard’s Hall (1991).
Quentin, like most of the other magicians in this secret world, were fans of the early 20th-century Fillory series, five books written by a reclusive Anglophile named Christopher Plover—an obvious nod to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. Quentin, a high-performing student, suffers from typical teenage angst: he doesn’t like his perfectly pleasant parents, his crush won’t reciprocate his affection, and he doesn’t quite know what he wants to do with his life; he feels as though he is waiting for some shoe to drop, for some new and different phase of his life to begin. Brakebills offers that to him, at least at first.
Rowling spent a lot of time world-building; the notion was taken to the extreme in Susanna Clarke’s Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is one of the best novels of magic I’ve ever encountered. Grossman avoids most explanation of how magic works, how the magical world is different from the regular world, or how magicians have influenced history. In fact, all five of Quentin’s years at Brakebills are condensed into a sort of summary: we get a sense that he is competent enough at doing magic, but mostly it’s a lot of rote exercise. Much more time is spent on Quentin’s friendship and eventual romance with Alice, a mousy girl but excellent Magician. Though an improvement over his life in Brooklyn, Brakebills ends up being another kind of monotony for Quentin: the magical world isn’t radically different from his old world. The relationships are the same, and his own place in societal structure is the same. In fact, there doesn’t really seem to be a “wizarding world” in the same sense as Rowling’s universe; one is told that the magical world controls some large corporations, but mostly magicians either go undercover in normal life, or spend their time on ridiculous pursuits like Alice’s parents.
The only incident of magical note is a point when Quentin’s class is visited from a mysterious creature in a grey suit known as The Beast, a magical entity of tremendous power who eats one of the Brakebills students alive and then disappears. This scene in particular made me think of Yolen’s Wizard’s Hall and hold out the hope that Quentin would end up being an important character, but by this point I had resigned myself to the notion that The Magicians isn’t about magic at all; it has magic in it, but it’s really just about what it’s like to go from a child to an adult. Substitute the magical college of Brakebills for the the insular college world of any big university: the sudden freedom from parents, the uncertainty about one’s future, the sexual and substantial experimentation, and then suddenly graduation and the weightless sensation of being responsible for your own destiny, alone out in the world. Whether Brakebills and Fillory are some extended metaphor or merely easy narrative structure, they are clearly only incidental to the story—a not and a wink from Grossman indicating his private joke that he understands how alternately sick and excited we are for these prefab magic stories, and wouldn’t it be interesting to twist them to a surprising purpose?
Meyer and Rowling do share two important traits. Both writers embed their fantasy in the modern world–Meyer’s vampires are as deracinated and contemporary as Rowling’s wizards. And people do not want to just read Meyer’s books; they want to climb inside them and live there. James Patterson may sell more books, but not a lot of people dress up like Alex Cross. There’s no literary term for the quality Twilight and Harry Potter (and The Lord of the Rings) share, but you know it when you see it: their worlds have a freestanding internal integrity that makes you feel as if you should be able to buy real estate there.
Grossman’s world has no such integrity, I assume by design. In fact, the world Grossman creates is so bleak and monotonous and terrible that one seems all the more sad for reading it: the existential crisis that plagues Quentin and his companions is dreadful and depressing enough, never mind the misadventures and misfortunes they find in the magical world. It’s as though he wants to tell the new generation of workforce-bound students that he understands their plight, and that it will never get better. In the end, that’s what The Magicians seems to be: little more than the worst commencement speech ever given.
- The comparison, I think, is apt in in terms of gross, but that’s an argument for another time[↩]