The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I think it’s fair to say I hated Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians.

It would, of course, be unfair not to mention that, two hundred pages in, at the close of part one, I started skimming the book, desperate just to be finished with the final third of a novel that had already taken me the better part of a month to plod through. I don’t think I missed anything of much importance — and nothing I would have missed as much as the time lost by reading more closely — but if you want to argue I didn’t give the book all the attention it deserves, that’s your right. I’ll argue the book stopped deserving my attention well before that two-hundred-page mark, well before the one-hundred page mark, and that the only reason I didn’t throw it across the room is because I had bought the e-book version and didn’t want to damage my iPad.

I realize now that I should have listened to Heather; she also disliked Grossman’s book, and was quite vocal about that fact, but it’s not as if we’ve never disagreed about books before. I had heard an interview with Grossman on public radio, where he made the idea of the book sound intriguing; he read a little and seemed smart and engaging. Next month, I’m going to this event at the New York Public Library where Grossman will be reading, along with some other writers I like, and curiosity got the better of me. It seemed like I had to actually read it. Now I’m a little worried. If it wasn’t for that “and some other writers I like” part, I think I’d be skipping that library event altogether. I won’t go to heckle him, but I will probably squirm uncomfortably in my seat a little every time he talks or someone praises his book.

The Magicians has most frequently been compared to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, which does seem more than apt. Like Potter, Grossman’s main character, the improbably named Quentin Coldwater, is plucked from reality — Brooklyn instead of England — and enrolled in a school for future magicians — Brakebills instead of Hogwarts. What’s astounding, however, is that most of the people making the comparison seem to be under the impression that it’s Grossman’s book that comes out ahead. Author George R.R. Martin went as far as to say, “The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea.” I don’t know what book it is that Martin read, but maybe he ought to lay off the whiskey for a while. I think it’s impairing his judgment.

The idea of a grown-up Harry Potter book isn’t a terrible one, even if you ignore all the examples (like Le Guin’s Earthsea or Gaiman’s Books of Magic) that already exist. The problem is, it’s almost immediately apparent that Grossman isn’t truly invested in this idea, that he’s much less interested in taking on Harry Potter than in exploring that other, decades-older fantasy world: Narnia. It’s C.S. Lewis that interests him, a fact borne out not just in that interview I heard, but also in his book’s repeated — and one might say incessant — descriptions of Fillory, Grossman’s own otherworldly Narnia analog. J.K. Rowling seems like something of a late addition, even if Grossman does manage to squeeze some two hundred pages out of ripping her off.

Ultimately, though, by trying to combine the sorcerers’ school with a story of children whisked off to a mystical realm — by inelegantly pasting Narnia atop of Hogwarts — Grossman manages only to under-serve both. Far from feeling “grown-up,” his novel feels undercooked, his characters tedious, thinly drawn, and, more than anything else, aggressively immature.

It’s true that Harry Potter is written primarily for (and about) young adults. But making your protagonists older, and your school a college instead of a high school, does not in and of itself mean that you are telling a story for grown-ups. Throwing sex and drugs and naughty words into the mix doesn’t magically make the story you are telling any more mature. If anything, it only underlines the childishness of it and your characters when you have no other bag of tricks to fall back on. Anybody can write “fuck” or string together a bad sex scene. To matter, mature themes need to be treated maturely.

It also helps if we don’t very quickly learn to hate every one of your characters. No, wait, I take that back. The characters in Grossman’s book would need to differentiate themselves from one another, beyond surface-level physical descriptions, before my hatred of them could be applied individually. In all honesty, I only learned to hate a couple of them, including Quentin; the rest were a large and forgettable mix, brought on and off stage as the plot — or more accurately, for most of the book, the lack thereof — demanded. It’s hard to hate someone if two pages later you can’t even remember who they were supposed to be. And, if a hundred pages later, they’re supposed to be somebody else.

But then again, Quentin doesn’t really care about any of these people — or much of anything, really — so why should we?

Say what you will about J.K. Rowling as a storyteller and a stylist, you do care about her characters, and they are capable of development and growth over the course of the series. That’s not something I could say about any of the characters in Grossman’s novel. None of them grow or mature; if they change at all, it’s only out of narrative convenience, often doing things that are inconsistent with what they’ve done before because…well, because somebody has to do it. Lev Grossman is a lazy storyteller and at best a semi-proficient stylist. There’s nothing to admire, particularly, about the crafted language of his prose. (Though there are, on occasion, some things to truly dislike about it.) More to the point, however, we care increasingly less about his characters, characters who are developed only superficially and who interact with one another in ways that reveal nothing of substance about themselves or their world. These are characters who, for me, elicited nothing beyond relief when I was finally released from their tedious company.

If the goal of the book is to make us yearn for the magic of Brakebills or Fillory, to share in (or at least empathize with) Quentin’s obsessions and marvel at the wonder of magic made real, then Grossman has failed terribly. Quentin — if not every main character — is an insufferable, self-centered (and self-pitying) jerk. There’s little purchase for empathy in him as a character, and it’s all squandered before the book’s end. The more time we spend with Quentin, the less we care about him or his world; the more we see of magic in that world, the more tedious it becomes.

Grossman writes:

“Most people are blind to magic. They move through a blank and empty world. They’re bored with their lives, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They’re eaten alive by longing, and they’re dead before they die.”

Yet Brakebills — and most certainly the lives the characters inhabit upon graduating — seems every bit a blank and empty world. Maybe it’s my ungenerous mood, but this may be the least magical book about magic I have ever read.

And if the Harry Potter books are often over-plotted, over-filling the school year of each volume, Grossman’s book is seriously under-plotted, more like an outline that speeds through the days and months and years. There are occasionally clever bits hidden in the outline, but few if any of them truly register. None of them feel like things that are happening, but rather things that have, even as we’re reading about them, already receded into the dusty and forgotten past. We’re often expected to take Grossman’s word for it that what’s happening on the page is interesting even to the characters, and he all too often glosses over events, offering what might as well be a bulleted list. This, that, and this happened. Wasn’t it amazing? For a book whose reading was painfully slow, things happen remarkably quickly. And yet, for all the things that do happen, few of those things seem to actually matter.

The “rules” of magic in this world seem just as arbitrary and mutable as the characters. Grossman repeatedly insists that spells are hard-won, difficult, require serious practice regardless of innate talent — that magic does, in fact, operate by rules. But there’s scant evidence of that. What magic actually does, and why you would want to devote four years of study and a lonely life to learning the mechanics of these spells — that seems curiously absent from the book. The rules seem dependent on whatever story Grossman has latched on to for the moment.

A case in point is the class trip to the South Pole, to Brakebills South, which the students reach by by being transformed into Canadian geese. This is almost interesting, and if there’s any humor in the book it comes from scenes like this. But then just a few chapters later — after much less interesting transformations into arctic foxes1 and Quentin’s surprisingly tedious solo flight to the moon2 — we are told, in all seriousness (albeit in the voice of Janet, the book’s least serious and most tiresome character besides Quentin), that one cannot and must not use magic to change one’s physical appearance.

The magic in Harry Potter may be a little silly, but at least it makes some small amount of sense.

Grossman is also often casually sexist, which may be surprising given that it’s a female character (Alice) who is the closest the book ever comes to interesting or well defined. None of the men are particularly well defined as characters either, but the women are almost universally awful: sexual “vampires” like Janet, forgotten objects of childhood affection like Julia, or semi-exotic lovelies — isn’t she just so cute when she’s angry? — like the late addition Anais. The only other women are half-glimpsed and then quickly forgotten objects of Quentin’s immature, vaguely defined lust, often characterized by nothing more substantial than his eye on their heavy breasts. (That Quentin may be secretly a little in love with Elliot, his gay friend, does not at all mitigate this, since it’s handled with Grossman’s typical inelegance and lack of subtlety3.) There’s also Quentin’s mother, more a lurking presence than a character, and Alice’s mother, who we meet once and never again. Both of them are horribly insular in their own ways — either because Quentin doesn’t care enough to understand their world (with his own mother), or because of a well of genuine insanity that stands in the way (with Alice’s).

It’s this contrast between their two mothers — one, at worst, mildly indifferent, the other squirrely and unhinged — that further underlines the central problem with the book: namely, that Quentin just needs to get the fuck over himself. If we had any sense that his life in Brooklyn, or at Brakebills, or after was the least bit difficult, it might be easier to sympathize with almost four hundred pages of him feeling sorry for himself.

As Abigail Nussbaum writes in her review:

When fantasy novels, especially ones that posit the existence of a secret magical elite, deliver this kind of opulence to their characters free of charge, what they’re actually doing is using magic as a substitute for wealth and class. So that when Quentin expresses his desire for the solidity and beauty of Brakebills, it’s hard not to see him as the middle class kid desperately trying to hold on to his position in a rich people’s enclave. Except that Quentin is in fact quite well off, and only disdains his parents’ Park Slope apartment and later their McMansion in the Boston suburbs because to him these represent a shabby imitation of Brakebills’s luxury. He wants his wealth made, not manufactured–“[the curtains] were coarse-woven, but it wasn’t the familiar, depressing, fake-authentic coarseness of high-end Earth housewares, which merely imitated the real coarseness of fabrics that were woven by hand out of genuine necessity.” Quentin, in other words, is a rich kid who wants to be super-rich.

Which would be fine, albeit probably not much fun, if we weren’t meant to accept Quentin as the book’s hero. If Lev Grossman’s objective was to make us dislike his characters, to recognize their selfishness, and to build to the (not particularly revelatory) revelation that magic/money can’t buy you happiness, then why the happy ending, the magical reward for characters who have done not one redeeming thing to earn it? The idea that real life is meaner and nastier than a lot of children’s fantasy, at least of the C.S. Lewis variety, isn’t exactly ground-breaking4, but there are substantially worse ideas to explore. The problem is, Grossman treats this as if it was a major revelation, and, moreover, he asks us to sympathize with characters who are not remotely sympathetic — characters still remarkably well insulated from real life’s meanness. These are lousy people whichever way you look at it, but if they’re lousy by design, why am I left with the overwhelming sense that the novel not only likes them, but accepts their self-pitying as entirely justified?

Magic can’t buy you happiness, unless of course it’s the right kind of magic, or in the right amount, and in the right hands.

None of this has even really touched upon Fillory, the heart of the back end of the book, but what is there to say beyond that it’s one more serious problem in a seriously flawed book?

The existence of a contemporary world where everyone, to a person, has read and loved a series of children’s books written almost a century before any of them were born, much less a world in which those same people believe, on the basis of no very clear evidence, that what the books describe is in fact reality… Well, it strains credulity even more than the existence of the magical world itself would. I think I would sooner believe in the existence of Narnia, for instance, than a world some 70 or 80 years later where every American child — and not just fans — knew Lewis’ story backwards and forwards and, moreover, where some of them believed it was real…just because.

If this was a book in which a small group of friends discover that Fillory, and the magic in it, are real, and also learn that real magic looks different as you mature, as you are exposed to the harsh realities of adult life, and that it comes with steep costs and heady responsibilities, I still don’t think that would have been anything new, but at least it would have been more interesting. I don’t know that I would have hated that book.

Because the Fillory-centric material isn’t necessarily bad. It suffers, like the rest of the book, from Grossman’s almost comical difficulties with pacing5 and story construction and his inability to craft convincing and exciting action scenes worth a damn. But Fillory itself is a knowing (or at least well-versed) Narnia pastiche. You do get the sense that Grossman loved Lewis’ books as a child, and that he is genuinely interested in what that love means as an adult. It’s here, near the very end, that he actually hints at what I think he imagined the book was about:

The ram drew Himself up.

“I am sorry you came here,” Ember said. “Children of Earth. No one asked you to come. I am sorry our world is not the paradise you were looking for. But it was not created for your entertainment. Fillory–” the old ram’s jowls shook — “is not a theme park, for you and your friends to play dress-up in, with swords and crowns.”

He was visibly mastering some powerful emotion. It took Quentin a moment to recognize it. It was fear. The old ram was choking on it.

“That’s not why we came here, Ember,” Quentin said quietly.

“Is it not?” Ember said, basso profundo. “No, of course it is not.” His alien eyes were hard to meet, with their molten yellow whites and black pupils like figure eights on their side, symbols of infinity. “You came here to save us. You came here to be a King.

“But tell me something, Quentin. How could you hope to save us when you cannot even save yourself?”

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, that this maybe puts too fine a point on it at the end. Even stated so baldly, so inartistically — “you cannot even save yourself”? Whoa, that’s deep — it’s a powerful exchange, and it’s an idea, however well worn it may already be, that could be worth building a fantasy novel around6. Yet I think that Grossman does a remarkably awful job of fleshing out the rest of it, of actually writing the novel. I think others have been there before and managed to plumb the depths of youthful fantasy, re-examine childhood magic through the prism of reality and adult eyes, while also telling an engaging story at the same time. Grossman barely scratches the surface of the former and hopelessly botches the latter. His story is ultimately nothing so much as threadbare and tedious. A few scattered moments like this show promise, but they’re quickly brushed aside in favor of more spoiled rich kids getting what they don’t deserve.

That long sequence above with Ember, the ram? It ends with Quentin being “spared the necessity of answering, because that was when the catastrophe began.” Which is the kind of sloppy, indifferent storytelling all too typical of Grossman’s novel.

This is not “treating fantasy seriously.” Tacking a poor man’s Harry Potter parody on to a weak (if affectionate) Narnia facsimile and then saying, “Ta da! Magic won’t make everything perfect like you thought as a child,” is not in any sense of the word “grown-up.” There is no deep examination of fantasy’s dark undercurrents here, no mature reappraisal of childhood dreams. Magic does make everything perfect in the end, despite Ember’s words, and along the way the characters are just insufferable7. It surprises me that so many, including authors whose work I admire — some whose work I think does exactly what this book so spectacularly fails to do — have read into Grossman’s novel a maturity that just isn’t there. It’s a curiously joyless book that expects us to be overjoyed by its conclusion.

Well, I was overjoyed by the book’s conclusion, but probably not for the reason that Grossman would like. I was just glad to finally part company with these characters and not have to think about the book anymore8.

1 It’s important, I think, to note that, by his own admission, Quentin is never more happy than when he has been transformed into an animal, with his world and friends forgotten. His ideal existence — and this doesn’t seem to ever change — is one free of thought and responsibility, a life no more complicated than the guilt-free fox sex orgy that Grossman describes in far too much detail.

2 Lev Grossman may be the only writer I know of who can make a solo flight (sans spacecraft) to the moon sound clinically tedious.

3 Quentin may have slept with Elliot, on the night he also cheats on Alice with Janet. The two of them may have kissed, or it may have even been a three-way with Janet. Grossman is painfully coy about this, and all I wanted to do was shout, “You don’t get points for being falsely nonchalant about this. If you want to making Quentin gay, or you want him to question his sexuality, that’s fine, but just for god’s sake commit to it already.”

4Even the Harry Potter books get at this, as the series grows progressively darker. People there die, too, starting quite notably in the fourth book with Cedric Diggory. His death is equally as brutal and meaningless as Amanda Orloff’s death at the hands (or jaws) of the Beast in Grossman’s novel. The difference there, however, is glaring: Cedric’s death matters to us, and it matters to Harry because he feels responsible. It changes who he is, forces him to grow up sooner than he might have liked. Amanda’s death, on the other hand, doesn’t matter because she’s just a name, one of several. And although Quentin is much more directly responsible for killing her than Harry ever was for Cedric’s death, there’s no sense that it makes any lasting impression on him. In this instance, Quentin, notably (but typically), feels sorry for himself, rather than the girl he unintentionally gets killed.

5 I think Grossman describes his own writing fairly well when he says, “Time passed, or at least Quentin knew that, according to theory, it pretty much had to be passing.”

6 Alice puts Quentin nicely in his place, too, when she points out that “You gave up on Brooklyn and on Brakebills, and I fully expect you to give up on Fillory when the time comes.” But here again, a passage that reveals Quentin as selfish and indifferent to others has the misfortune of being in a book that presents him as the enviable, put-upon hero.

7 In Fillory, Quentin vacillates so often and so quickly from giddy joy to self-pitying misery that one begins to suspect he’s mentally unwell, perhaps bipolar. He can go from ecstatically happy to almost suicidally depressed in the span of no more than a few sentences. And that’s our hero.

8 You couldn’t pay me to read the upcoming sequel. I did, however, enjoy Soon I Will Be Invincible by Grossman’s twin brother Austin. I would much rather read his next book.

7 thoughts on “The Magicians by Lev Grossman

  1. Glad my impressions weren’t mistaken. When I read the book, I really, really wanted to like it. I wanted it to do well, and I wanted it to bring the kind of depth to the idea of magical education that wasn’t possible in the Harry Potter books because of the age of the characters. But it was such a letdown. There was so much that COULD have been done with the plot. I felt like Grossman just wasted a really good idea.

  2. Wow, you really did hate it, didn’t you? 🙂 Which I’m sorry to hear, because it’s currently sitting on my giant To-Read Pile. (For which reason, I didn’t read all of this post, because I kind of want to not bias myself too much going in when I finally get around to it. I’ll be interested to come back and finish reading your opinions afterward.)

    I have seen other bad reviews of it, too, though. And I’ve also heard from others that it’s meant to be a parody or deconstruction or something of Harry Potter and other fantasy novels, and that if you approach it strictly on that level it works a lot better than if you go into it with different expectations. I don’t know, but I’m actually very curious now to see what I end up thinking of it and which camp I agree with.

  3. I started out just not liking it much, but eventually it took its toll, and that dislike turned serious. I’m not sure the book ever got significantly worse. It just never, ever got any better.

    I think there’s a deconstruction of fantasy novels lurking in it somewhere, and possibly even a genuinely good one, even if the idea of deconstructing fantasy isn’t exactly new. There are moments, like that scene with Ember above, that made me think twice and wonder if I was misreading the book. But they were just passing moments, unfortunately, surrounded by poor pacing, bad writing, casual sexism, and some truly insufferable characters.

    Of course, now that I’ve written some 3,000 words on the book, I’m perfectly happy to put it out of my mind altogether. At least, I guess, until that library event later this month.

Comments are closed.