Posted by: Kristen Hicks | December 1, 2011

On The Magicians

Note: if you haven’t read the book and want to go in without foreknowledge of the plot, best to stop here.

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians was largely promoted as a more adult version of the Harry Potter books. While there are undeniable similarities in the basic premise: a young man discovers that magic is real and is afforded the opportunity to attend a prestigious, exclusive school of magic; the general tone and experience of the novel varies considerably.

None of the characters in The Magicians are painted as especially likeable. In particular, the novel’s primary protagonist, Quentin, is a deeply flawed individual, insistent on a dour outlook of life regardless of what it brings him. His underwhelmed response to his fantastical experiences serves as a reflection of the dissatisfaction many feel upon reaching adulthood and realizing that the seemingly inevitable shift to feeling more responsible and secure in one’s sense of self doesn’t magically materialize. At multiple junctures throughout the novel Quentin gets precisely what he’s been convinced he wants and yet continues to feel lost, dissatisfied and confused by his unhappiness.

We see the magical school of Brakebills through the eyes of Quentin, a largely aloof and anti-social individual who only really interacts with a small group of similarly flawed characters who, in spite of the power their knowledge and skills at magic provide them, opt to spend many of their days and nights drinking, conversing about nothing in particular and having sometimes complicated, but more often casual and ineffectual sex.

The main exception to the book’s representation of its characters as narcissistic and plagued by ennui is Quentin’s love and the most powerful of the non-professor magicians we encounter, Alice. In perhaps one of the most unique beginnings to any love story ever explored in fiction, Alice and Quentin first acknowledge and embrace their attraction to each other after being temporarily turned into foxes. Both characters are so hesitant to fully embrace their more complex emotions that it takes a brief foray into literal animal passion to realize the feelings that the book’s readers are already savvy to long before the scene occurs.

One of Grossman’s greatest achievements in the novel is using the symbols offered by the wide world of fictional magic to create obvious, although creative, representations of fairly run of the mill experiences. Using a literal foray into animal passion to communicate the experience of first giving into an attraction that’s existed for sometime but not yet been realized due to all the inhibitions that come with being an awkward teenager is just one of many.

Along these lines, he comes to two of my favorite aspects of the book: 1) Making the power of language to influence our perception of the world literal by imbuing it with the ability to actually change the reality of the world surrounding the characters; and, 2) Exploring the fantasy most avid readers have of taking a more active role in the stories we love and turning it on its head by showing how realistic, flawed characters interact with a fantasy world more complex and full than their childhood (and in Quentin’s case – teenhood and adulthood) imagination had prepared them for.

The Magicians is a book written for readers. Those of us who revel in the amazing worlds, creatures and characters that can be created out of nothing but a combination of words and an artist’s imagination. As a writer and book reviewer, Grossman knows precisely the themes and dreams to tap into to appeal to his fellow enthusiasts of the written word.

Through one of the teachers at Brakebills, Grossman muses on the ties between magic and language in the world he’s created:

“If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so. Words and thoughts don’t change anything. Language and reality are kept strictly apart…The separation between word and fact is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded. But somewhere in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt and fuse. Language gets tangled up in the world it describes”

It’s easy to see that passage and feel it could very neatly apply to the experience of becoming truly engrossed in a fictional story. The reality shaped by the words briefly takes over the reality of objects.  It could be even more directly applied to the process of world creation taken on by fiction writers who can envision different ways for characters to interact with the physical laws of the reality they sculpt and make it so, within the confines of the pages the fill in.

Taking the idea even further, Grossman allows Quentin to literally enter into the world of his favorite book and interact with its characters. From the beginning of the novel Quentin’s infatuation with the world described in the Fillory books–a world with talking animals, clear villains and heroes and a different relationship to time than ours–is well established. He’s bashful about it, as the books are seen by most as stories for kids, but he can shake his gnawing desire to escape from his day to day reality and into the stories of Fillory.

How many of us haven’t, at some point, exercised a fantasy of becoming a part of the worlds of our favorite stories; wondering just how we’d fit in with the characters we feel so connected to and the adventures they encounter?

In Quentin’s case, the realization of a magical reality brings him that much closer to a realization of his Fillory fantasy, but he finds that, in and of itself, the ability to control his physical reality with his words doesn’t bring the satisfaction he expects. Which is why, when the novel introduces the evidence that Fillory is actually real soon after Quentin’s graduation from Brakebills, he senses that this must be truly what he’s been waiting for, the event that will bring some kind of meaning to his life and allow him to experience his lifelong fantasies.

Once Quentin and his friends venture into Fillory, after some considerable inter-relationship personal drama, their interactions with the fantasy world feel both oddly predictable and unique within the realm of fantasy literature. Quentin and his cohorts were never heroes, or even characters that especially valued lofty concepts like honor and respect and bravery. Naturally, this doesn’t change as they enter into an adventure in which such attributes are expected of them.

They continue to be affected by personal petty concerns and the general sense of disillusionment that defined their pre-Fillory existence. They do their best to rise to the tasks that are placed in front of them – fighting off the creatures that try to attack them and befriending those that seem to be on the side of good, but none of them is transformed by the setting into the kind of hero a protagonist in Fillory would likely be. Only Alice, already shown to be the most moral and skilled of the group, maintains the positive attributes she had all along and rises to the level of a hero in heartbreaking fashion.

I didn’t always love The Magicians as I was reading it. I don’t consider it necessary for a book to include characters I like to enjoy it, but spending time with ones I don’t especially care for doesn’t offer up the most pleasureful side of reading. That said, there are many moments within the novel that win me over and concepts explored that appeal to me pretty directly; enough that I’m likely to pick up the sequel, The Magician King, at some point down the line.

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