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Washtenaw Flaneurade
15 March 2012
McSweeney's Pitchfork Narnia
Now Playing: Grimes--"Oblivion"

The Magicians, Lev Grossman (2009) 

C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia (1949-55) are a classic of children's and fantasy literature and very likely special to many readers of this blog. Hence, a brief revision of the following exchange from The Horse and His Boy (1954) may help to approximate the feeling I've had over the past couple of days.

"Do you know why I tore you?" [asked Aslan]

"No, sir." [answered Aravis, an attractive teenage girl of Middle Eastern derivation, or Calormene, as close as the Middle East comes to Narnia] 

"The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother's slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like." 

"Oh, what the TITS???" [Aravis now sounds like Nick Kroll in The League, even if she didn't actually say that; valuable moral lesson aside, Aslan now sounds kind of a perv]* 

That was a good likeness of the effect Lev Grossman's The Magicians had on me when I read it. The first in what's hopefully a trilogy (The Magician King followed in 2011), The Magicians takes the tropes and effects of Narnia and pits them squarely against the neuroses and concerns of twenty-first century America. Even its flaws seemed more fascinating than foul, and I'm still trying to find a way to honestly criticize it.

Quentin Coldwater, an introverted, geeky teenager living in (where else?) New York, is a little unsure what to do after high school, and receives a mysterious application for an exclusive college upstate. He answers the summons after some tortuous context, and winds up at "Brakebills College," the first of many borderline satirical references to Lewis' successors that had me smiling a little each time I saw it. The students--primarily manifesting in The Magicians as Quentin, the shy, brilliant Alice, vivacious, toxic Janet, fey, frantically witty Eliot, and loyal, lumbering Josh--spend the next few years learning magic in a strangely English setting for such an undeniably American institution. Quentin's precocity and insecurity indirectly call up a chthonic demon that wreaks havoc on Brakebills and serves as a reminder of the outside world's dangers, one that unsurprisingly returns to haunt them. The gang endures the frenzied social dramas so common to college and then, finding themselves at typically loose and subsidized ends for Brakebills graduates, decide to go crazy in a sick loft in Manhattan. An acquaintance, punk outcast Penny, shows up out of nowhere and reveals his possession of the key to another world, a possibility frowned upon by magic's shadowy officialdom. Upon discovering the truth of Penny's words, the gang make their way to the enchanted world of Fillory, filled with talking animals, dangerous witches, and clock trees. Will their adventures bring them the wisdom supposed to accrue to questing heroes? Who is behind the grotesque depredations of the dreaded Watcherwoman? Last but certainly not least, will we ever discover the secret of waspishly sexy, made-for-Ann Arbor Janet's mysterious allergies?

My personal dealings with fantasy literature have often been touched upon in these pixels, and The Magicians sits at a curious place in relation. I started on fantasy early, with my mom and dad introducing me to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (and indirectly to Ursula K. LeGuin, whose Earthsea trilogy I found on a dusty top shelf in our house den). Lewis and Tolkien were two of my favorites until about the end of middle school, coupled with other passions I now cringe to remember (Katharine Kurtz's Deryni series, for example). For whatever reason, I didn't tend to read a lot of other fantasy (or at least stick with it), despite an ongoing interest in Dungeons and Dragons' character-building mechanies (as opposed to the game itself) and a fascination with Arthurian legend. Eventually, partly as a result of reading an eye-opening interview with protean British writer and personal hero Michael Moorcock, I more or less gave up on fantasy altogether. Moorcock's point had been that most published fantasy basically consisted of slavish homages to Tolkien--effectively, pale imitations of a work that seemed something of a pale imitation itself. On the whole, my resolve had overwhelmingly beneficial effects, similar to those in Kevin Murphy's charmingly recounted story of shedding his servile devotion to Tolkien once someone played him all of The Clash's London Calling. I delved far and wide into literary fiction (a term understandably despised by some but whose present utility can't be denied), ranging from Aphra Behn to Emile Zola to Ishmael Reed to everywhere, tasting rich samples of different styles, different tastes, different worlds (a look here will give a few examples). I didn't give up on genre fiction--my fondness for classic sci-fi intensified and I made a few stabs at mysteries and thrillers (mostly historical, i.e. Elizabeth Peters or Alan Furst). It never once crossed my mind that I might be doing fantasy an injustice. 

It's hard to say when I mellowed. My intermittent ambitions to write something of a fantasy novel myself led me to think a good deal about the genre as a whole and some of the questions and presumptions it embodied. Exposure to the Internet certainly helped; I wouldn't have known about Jacqueline Carey's The Sundering (a pair of novels mirroring The Lord of the Rings by upending the perspective and moral focus--written by a Michigander!) were it not for my college chum Patrick. Similarly, the accretion of buzz for George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series on any number of blogs and culture websites finally got me to read A Game of Thrones, which easily defeated my hype-ready defenses. Finally, a random hunt for new stuff in the throes of Borders' demise yielded my favorite, the work of Ellen Kushner, whose universe, owing more to the buckled swashes of Dumas or Sabatini than Tolkien's hoary elfquests, showed to spectacular effect in Privilege of the Sword and Swordspoint (I've been deliberately putting off Kushner's central work--The Fall of Kings--written with Delia Sherman--in order to prolong the excitement). Hearing of The Magicians was like having the final puzzle piece fall into place.   

The Magicians' selling point seems to be the "maturation" of the "adolescent" fantasy, an idea that comes with a number of caveats and footnotes. In a sense, it's the fictional equivalent of something like Laura Miller's C.S. Lewis critique The Magician's Book, a work of or about fantasy or speculative fiction that has the right critical approach or literary cred to be acceptable to tastemaking venues like The New York Times or NPR. Like, say, the McSweeney's anthologies, it presents commercially successful (or at least vital) genres like fantasy or sci-fi (or, to a lesser extent, crime and mystery) translated through the literary talents of critically approved authors like Michael Chabon or Heidi Julavits. Grossman himself is a writer and critic at Time; while no Dave Eggers, say, he's certainly highly placed in the nation's literary strata. His earlier novel, Codex, was promising and to a certain extent intriguing, but in the end a bit of a disappointment. As a result, I didn't quite know what to expect when I first turned the pages of The Magicians. Quentin and his friends fulfill the typical roles of fantastic heroes, but in a very knowing, ironic way that could have been intolerable (and, for some people I know, was). Their interactions with magic filter through the familiar smartass weir of American young adulthood, and the dangers of the outside world, and of Fillory, receive similar treatment. It's hard to know how to get more discrete or specific without revealing plot points of a spoiling nature.

It's a little easier to pinpoint the effect Grossman's various references and influences have on the world the Magicians confront, not to mention Fillory. Brakebills is obviously reminiscent of Harry Potter's Hogwarts, though the alarming effects of Quentin's prank are more evocative of Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea (as is the existential threat that looms in The Magician King), and Ged's arcane folly in the Academy of Roke. Narnia, though, forms the primary reflection of The Magicians, with many of the plot points and setpieces blatant, intentional homages or riffs on events in Lewis' books. There's a mysterious, wintry affliction afoot in Fillory that our heroes have to correct (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe). There's a curious enchanted land full of portals out heroes must master to complete their journey (The Magician's Nephew). There's a vaguely smug noble mammal as which the divine power manifests itself (Aslan). There are four kingships at stake, one of them High, and so on. Narnia is probably the best represented in The Magicians' array of predecessors, so it's worth asking what aspects of the Narnian worldview (i.e. Lewis') The Magicians challenges or transforms. 

The question is somewhat complicated due to the existence of another fantasy series, this one designed as a (specifically atheist) riposte to Lewis' muscular Christian classic. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, consisting of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass (under different titles in his and Lewis' native country), arrived early last decade and caused quite a splash, especially in the States, due to their open denial of the divine. Pullman's a charming and talented writer--his Sturm und Drang Gothic homage Count Karlstein is a hoot and well worth seeking out--but HDM came complete with a couple of issues. First, it was explicitly a series of children's novels, thoguh some of the themes--atheism completely aside--sat a little ill-at-ease with the designation, as if Pullman was trying to woo adults to his universe and worldview in a clumsier way than, say, Rowling. Secondly, Pullman's understandable passion to combat Lewis' often saccharine, hectoring moralism (Adam Gopnik probably made up for any errors he might commit elsewhere in his superb mid-aughties New Yorker essay on Lewis, in which he made the razor insight that Aslan was more Mithraic than Christian) eventually leads him, especially by The Amber Spyglass, to be just as didactic, possibly more so, than his literary forebear and frenemy. The Golden Compass is flat-out magnificent, but the latter two suffer from Pullman's cheerleading rationalism, despite some spectacular settings and setpiece moments (Cittagazze, Mary Malone's discussion of love, etc.). Grossman's novels, on the other hand, are explicitly for adults and treat the whole question of godhood rather matter-of-factly (Arthur C. Clarke's famous dictum about science and magic from Childhood's End--published right in the middle of the Narnian procession--is quoted at least once). Of course, there are only two of them so far.

As far as The Magicians and its sequel have any kind of theme, it's the typical one often found in these stories, stretching back past literature's beginnings into myth or legend: the hero's achievement of wisdom and/or experience against incredible odds. The Magicians, though, unlike the Harry Potter series or His Dark Materials, is, once again, unrepentantly adult, shorn of the cross-generational appeal that garnered the other two such commercial success (and controversy). Grossman tends more along the line of more worldly progresses like Middlesex or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Though there are familiar sights and sounds such as talking animals and magic spells, they've been leached of their potential coziness to a degree that Rowling, Pullman, or even Lewis, for all the surprising darkness to be found in each, never quite manage. It makes Fillory an interestingly sinister place, with the heroes, at their pinnacle of success, feeling decidedly uneasy in their hard-won power and majesty.  I read the climax of The Magicians in the intermission of a local student performance of Waiting For Godot; it seemed unexpectedly fitting. 

That may be part of the point, of course. Unlike practically all his influences, Grossman is American, with little of the implied homage to such countryman genre progenitors as George Macdonald or William Morris, whose fantastical works of the late nineteenth century directly inspired both Lewis and Tolkien and which make very interesting--and dare I say enjoyable?--reading even today. That's a distinction that can certainly be taken too far. Morris the Victorian Brit, for example, was also a visionary socialist, and the recent criticism-proof swooning over Downton Abbey (guiltily enjoy it though I do) arguably points to a worrying nostalgia for aristocracy and empire among my fellow citizens (though I may be reading a little too much into that). Nevertheless, there's a bracing "colonial" willingness to forgo the pleasantries in the two books; unlike, say, Neil Gaiman, there's nothing twee in it. One or two characters even comment on the weirdly English character of Brakebills, which I thought was just as much a dig at the forelock-tugging worship of the English public school system by U.S. private schools, especially in the Northeast, as it was a comment on the often derivative, Anglophilic nature of American fantasy. Quentin and his friends believably fit into a recognizably real world at the same time they just as believably traverse the bizarre worlds that lead to their destiny in Fillory. A friend of mine condemned the post-graduate empty boozing and sex in Manhattan as "boring" (the "inspiring" material, which looks a lot like Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney, certainly was), but I think the ennui is intentional, a palate cleanser before hitting the fairy dust. The Fillory adventures come almost as an afterthought to the strained achievement and dirty laundry on show in The Magicians, and from what I know of fantasy novels in general, that's excitingly unusual.

There are, of course, flaws (seriously???). Quentin is a strikingly ordinary character, shy, charming, and unreasonable all at once. If he weren't still practically in adolescence, he'd be a Nice Guy (TM) of the first water. His struggles are believable and relatable to earlier experiences. Despite all this, he sometimes tends to blend in with the other characters. All parry each other's barbs with witticisms both pop-cultural and standard that are quite plausible for their era, but which have the effect on the page of making them seem a lot samier than they probably are. Whereas in the Harry Potter novels the main character ends up far less interesting than his best friends (it's a discussion for another time, but it has a lot to do with Harry's not actually doing anything genuinely wrong), in Grossman's novels the leads are sometimes indistinguishable. It may simply be a bit of cultural satire, but I doubt it (though I'm soberingly reminded of Ken Loach's take on character consistency as rendered by Ian Hart, mentioned last post, that it's "bullshit"). The rhythm and tone, too, suffer at times from Grossman's sympathetic desire to undercut any possible hint of literal fantasy. The leads may be millennial hipster nerds rather than Enid Blyton-like drips, but the constant deflections of any sort of mystical grandeur by flip quips lose their novelty after a while and start to stick out (even so, there are a couple of instances where jokes don't actually work and yet are still funny, like Taco's bizarre "Naginta" song in The League). The ghost of gender issues arises as a result of Quentin's third-person narrator status, but I think much of the second book helps put paid to such (I'd love to see a gender critique of this thing, but I doubt I'm really the person to light the fire). The homages, too, seem a bit literally delivered at times, as if we're headed through a classic children's fantasy theme park with Louis Theroux as the tour guide. 

All that aside, The Magicians is a riveting work likely to change the way a lot of readers view fantasy literature and the "mainstream's" relation thereto, possibly more so than even the Harry Potter books. Grossman himself shows signs of the same leveling impulse in interviews that I feel in my own bones, even if I'm divided on its actual necessity (distinctions by all means, but no hierarchies!). Some have criticized the novels for implicitly mocking fantasy fans, but The Magicians' satire (if satire it really is) is pretty keenly focused on the Narnian mythos; sword-and-sorcery, for instance, barely gets a look in (though that, too, is a discussion for another time), as it's a far cry from the tea-and-scones universe of a Lewis or Rowling (or even Pullman). It does something that's needed doing for quite a while: shaking up some of the genre's conventions and assumptions while introducing a degree of literary and psychological realism with whose presence in the genre I'm unfamiliar (George R.R. Martin's work, so far, comes close but isn't quite the same). There's talk of a third novel coming up, which would be historically fitting for this genre's sea of trilogies, and I for one can't wait. 

*The Horse and His Boy appeared the same year as Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim (and a year after Clarke's Childhood's End, a somewhat neglected "golden age" for British literature?). The idea of Jim Dixon instead of Professor Diggory Kirke as the kids' initial "spiritual advisor" really ought to be a subject for a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies-style pisstake one day. "'The point about Merrie England is that it was about the most un-Merrie period in our history. It's only the home-made pottery crowd, the organic husbandry crowd, the recorder-playing crowd, the Esperanto...' He paused and swayed; the heat, the drink, the nervousness, the guilt at last joined forces in him." Further up and further in!


Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 5:33 PM EDT
Updated: 15 March 2012 7:00 PM EDT
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