The Magicians

Before I say anything, I want to thank Lev Grossman for being generous with his time and visiting my book club to discuss his book, The Magicians. He was open to all questions, insisted that we should pull no punches, and a lot of the stories he shared about writing the book were great. We were very excited about having an author there to discuss his book, and the fact that he spent two hours with us was a testament to his willingness to chat with readers.

That said, The Magicians is not without a few flaws and because I want to discuss everything in depth, this review has two parts to it. The first part is my usual review -- a general overview of the book and my overall reaction. The second part is a bit weird, because it's more or less a bunch of individual topics of discussion from the book, which means there are spoilers galore. BUT the second part ALSO has more to do with the visit that Grossman paid to my book club, so feel free to make your own decision about how much you read.

To start, if you heard this book described as "Harry Potter for adults" and you're looking for a magical book that could in any way merit the term "fantasy," this is not the book for you. If you are looking for a fiction book that deals with magic as though it is brought into our existing world for a select few as another facet of life, but there is a distinct lack of joy and wonderment, then your search is at an end.

I've had mixed feelings about The Magicians from the moment I read its description in a review, and those mixed feelings continue even now, after I've gotten to speak with the author and ask some lingering questions. I was initially intrigued by the idea, but had already decided to wait for paperback when my book club selected it, with the tantalizing potential of actually having Lev Grossman come to talk to us through the contacts of one of the members. I bought it; I took off the slipcover so it wouldn't be damaged as it knocked about in my purse; and I was immediately annoyed by the embossed "L.G." on the front cover. I like pretentiousness, don't get me wrong, but seriously? I should have taken this as a sign of things to come.

Those embossed initials don't even come close to the tone of the novel in general and the main character in particular. And not in a good "this is a really fascinating character" kind of way. I have so rarely wanted to punch a fictional person as much as I wanted to punch Quentin Clearwater, our protagonist. I'm a pacifist and I dislike violence, but it was a visceral reaction that would surge through me, forcing me to set the book down and take a deep breath before I could pick it up again. This annoyance would abate, and there were moments of pleasure and amusement, but through it all, I couldn't help but think that if I could just get in one solid punch, I'd be able to feel better about everything. Of course, Quentin does get punched at one point, and while I was pleased by that scene, I can't say that it really made me feel better, so perhaps I'm wrong about the therapeutic punching. (Note: despite the fact that Quentin is very closely aligned with the author in tone, this pugilistic impulse never focused on the author, thankfully. Though perhaps it helped that a month passed between my reading the book and discussing the book with the author and my book club.)

The basic storyline is this. Quentin Clearwater has grown up in Brooklyn with a penchant for magic tricks, an obsession with a series of children's books set in a land called Fillory, and a very acute awareness of his own incredible intelligence. He's always been advanced, he's always been an A-student, yet now that he's applying to and interviewing for colleges, he somehow feels a bit nervous. But when he shows up for his interview, he discover the body of his interviewer, dead of seemingly natural causes. A rather out-of-place and attractive paramedic offers Quentin a folder that might or might not have belonged to the dead interviewer and Quentin takes it, despite his friend cautioning otherwise. When Quentin inspects the contents, a slip of paper is blown away and in chasing it, he finds himself entering what appears to be an alternate world. Of course, it's not an alternate world but it might as well be; it's upstate New York and Quentin has arrived/been summoned to take an entrance exam for an elite school -- and once passing, he learns that the school is a school for magic. Instead of college, he will attend Brakebills and learn how to be a magician. Magic is real. His world is forever changed, but whether it's for the better or worse is up for debate.

Sound familiar? It should. (Well, at least up until the the better or worse bit.) It's the plot of countless fantasy novels where a young person is spirited away from a boring or painful existence and exposed to a world of magic. It is impossible not to think of Harry Potter (though Grossman insists that he conceived of the idea of this novel before The Boy Who Lived entered our lives). What makes The Magicians different is that it includes a few things that other similar novels do not (notably, lots of sex, alcohol, and swearing) and it ventures to pose some questions left unimagined in Narnia or Hogwarts. Instead of staying in school for the duration of the novel, these magicians continue on, into the world, and are left to ask "what's the point?" If you can cast a spell, can you ever really grow up? And if magic cannot make you happy, can anything?

A few words of assessment before I launch into spoiler-land. First of all, I am glad that I read this book. And I'm glad that it was written. I'm just not sure that Grossman was the best one to do it. It was very hard not to associate Quentin with Grossman (and Grossman himself admitted to being quite closely aligned with Quentin when he discussed the novel with my book club) and I think we get too bogged down with Quentin to really explore the more interesting questions about magic that the book touches upon. I did, however, like the book more after speaking with Grossman. Sure, it was nice to have a few suspicions validated, but it also reminded me that books are written by imperfect people with original ideas, and I'd rather have them attempt to bring those ideas into the world than leave them to languish in their minds.

For fantasy-lovers, I urge a bit of caution in reading this novel. True, the book is riddled with touchstones and nods to other works (Fillory is quite obviously Narnia and jokes are made at one time about Quidditch)... but perhaps the biggest issue that I had with The Magicians is that the tone of the novel felt calculated. It was as though Grossman (being a fantasy reader himself) knew his market well -- and to win over the readers with a sense of being "in" on things, he left these nods to other stories so readers could go, "hey, I know where he got that idea!" or "look at that joke about this other book!" But instead of feeling like there was camaraderie between reader and writer in this recognition, there was a touch of disdain. Even as Grossman tried to lure the readers in by presenting himself as one of them, it felt as though he looked down on their love of these other works. Quentin is never really happy (and indeed, my book club unanimously agreed that without medication, he was incapable of happiness), and so I had the distinct impression that if I took delight in those other fantasy novels and expressed happiness, then I was being seen as a bit childish. The novel judges fantasy as a genre for never dealing with deeper issues, and so similarly, the reader, too, feels judged. Grossman himself didn't give this impression in person, and insisted that he's always loved fantasy (though he does have some HP issues). Perhaps it was simply my own misreading, but this seemed to be a book with a lack of respect for lighter fantasy, save as a medium through which to tell people that they're indulging in escapism. If you can be happy, then you can't possibly have it in you to tackle the bigger questions of magic. Magic was discussed without any spark of belief or wonder or joy... and so I found it very hard to see any appeal in the worlds that Grossman conjured, or feel any concern for the characters who populated them. All of this doesn't stop the book from being very interesting and having some excellent moments that made me laugh or feel deeply for the characters. There are some delightful scenes that I re-read with relish. But on the whole, I had serious doubts about how honest Grossman was being, with the readers and himself, as it pertained to his relationship with fantasy writing.

From this point on, I warn you that I will give things away. If you want to read the book and don't want any plot points spoiled, stop now. If you have read the book already, don't think you will, or don't think that knowing things about the ending of the book will stop you, then by all means, keep reading and feel free to initiate discussion on any of the topics that I raise. If nothing else, this was a great book for raising discussion questions, both about the book itself and the fantasy genre as a whole. My formal review ends here. Now it's just summaries and interesting discussion topics.


Here's the quick summary of the rest of the book. The major bulk of the novel is spent in "Book One," where Quentin attends Brakebills and learns magic. The most shocking incident occurs when somehow, a magic force (referred to as "the Beast") "hacks" into Brakebills and seems to do nothing except freeze a class in place and devour a student, departing after a few hours of keeping the class frozen in place. The encounter with the Beast alerts us to the reality of other "dimensions" of existence. As for the rest of the magical education, there are a few interesting parts (the most notable being a semester where the students are transformed into geese, fly to Antarctica, and then spend the semester mostly in silence and practical application of the rudiments of magic in every possible condition) but otherwise it's not terribly memorable. Quentin acquires a girlfriend (Alice), as well as a few other friends, mostly by virtue of their being thrown together in their studies: Eliot (gay, cruel, and somehow Quentin's closest friend after Alice), Janet (self-obsessed and a bit promiscuous), Josh (lazy and skirting along), and Penny (detached, brilliant, though not quite a friend as punches Quentin fairly early on). When Quentin and Alice enter the real world (Book Two), they become lost as to what they should be doing (or at least Quentin does), and only gain direction (perhaps too late, though, as Quentin has cheated on Alice by having a threesome with Eliot and Janet) when Penny discovers that Fillory is real. (Now, if the reader is looking at a hardcover edition of this book, s/he would probably assume that we go to Fillory at some point, because there are maps. But we don't get to Fillory until we're already SEVENTY PERCENT THROUGH THE BOOK. So you'd be forgiven if you were surprised when we actually do go, because I had almost given up on ever getting to actual Fillory.) They do, indeed, go to Fillory (Book Three) and take upon themselves the quest of finding the guardians of Fillory who seem to have disappeared and left the land a bit lawless. Naturally, this goes horribly wrong as they're confronted with true violence and they discover that the Beast is actually one of the children who appeared in the Fillory books that was left behind and learned how to manipulate magic for his own purposes. Alice dies in destroying the Beast, and Quentin nearly dies as well. He revives, mends, and finds his way back to "the real world," (Book Four) where he gives up magic for a time, but when given the opportunity to re-join his friends and return to Fillory... he chooses Fillory once more.

Now, here are a few "fun facts" that my book club learned from Lev Grossman.

1. Grossman based the structure of the novel on Brideshead Revisited, which is one of his favorite novels. As strange as this might sound, consider the basic arch -- a rather idyllic beginning in an elite college atmosphere followed with an abrupt (and alcohol-sodden) entry into the "real world" where the characters find it hard to cope.

2. Grossman claims that he thought of the idea for this novel in the mid-90s, "before Harry Potter" as a result of his exposure to authors like Ursula K. Le Guin (with whom Grossman is now acquainted and on a first-name basis) and other fantasy literature that featured students schooled in magic.

3. There's no getting away from the comparison that Fillory is startlingly like Narnia. It's foolish to suggest otherwise. And in fact, Grossman told us that the first draft of The Magicians actually was set in Narnia, with Aslan and CS Lewis as characters. Of course, he then spoke with some intellectual property lawyers and friends who told him that sure, it's possible, he could go ahead with a book set in Narnia, but the legal issues would put him up against the CS Lewis estate and Walt Disney Pictures... so you're also up against unlimited money to fund a legal battle that could drag on. So the idea of immediately being set in Narnia was abandoned and Fillory was born.

4. In talking with Grossman, one inevitably finds that he tends to name drop. He's a journalist who does a great deal of interviews and he wrote a book that draws heavily on other novels, so it's easily forgiveable. He admits to constantly adding in things that serve as nods to other works of fiction. You'd be right in your guess that the whole turning-into-geese thing is a nod to TH White's The Sword in the Stone and that the cacodemons imprisoned in the backs of Brakebills graduates are inspired from Larry Niven. Another one that I might add to this (which wasn't explicitly mentioned, though Grossman did mention this author as an inspiration) is Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy. In this series, you find that a lot of power and magic is invested in children and when they grow up, their daemons stabilize -- and indeed, "growing up" might simply be synonymous with having sex. Grossman made a point of insisting that fantasy tends to see sex as the end of magic, whereas he believed that "sex isn't the end of magic, it's the beginning." I found this to be a great viewpoint, though the sex that occurs in The Magicians isn't always magical. On the whole, though, Grossman tended to say "I don't know if any of you have read [insert author/book]" quite a lot, as he must be fairly used to addressing audiences that wouldn't know his more obscure influences. Quite proudly, I can say that there wasn't a single reference to a book or author that he made which at least one of my book club members hadn't read.

5. Grossman repeatedly mentioned that one of the issues he had with Harry Potter (and there were several) was with the character of Dudley Dursley. When Grossman interviewed JK Rowling, he even left some of his limited interview time to address the question of Dudley. Rowling insists that Dudley is simply an unimaginative child who has no interest in magic, but Grossman believes that he would. A child on the fringe of a magical world without any interest in it whatsoever? It rubbed him the wrong way. Julia (a girl Quentin grew up with and ends up dating his best friend while Quentin pines for her) is Grossman's answer to Dudley. Quentin thinks he sees Julia at the exam, then is confronted by her at a later date, when she's completely lost it -- she's a person driven mad by the limited exposure to this magical world and then denied access. Grossman's other issue with Harry Potter is with the fact that Harry is too much of a jock and never seems to pick up a book for the duration of his magical education. Clearly, Quentin's obsession with fantasy books is correcting what Grossman believed should have been a trait of Harry. Jokingly, he even called Harry "a bit of a douchebag." Of course, he also said that he was a fan of Rowling's series, "in the limited way on can be a Harry Potter fan."

6. As far as his alignment with Quentin is concerned, Grossman admitted, "Quentin is very much like me at his age... he's very much like I was at 34" (the age at which he started writing the book). He also noted that his own battle with depression certainly found its way into Quentin's character as well, along with his somewhat distant relationship with his parents.

7. The most surprising revelation of the evening, however, was when Grossman told us that originally, it was Janet and not Alice that was supposed to die. If you search the book, you'll notice that there's a great amount of foreshadowing that points to this. (Indeed, while reading the book, I was of the opinion that Janet would get it in the end... after all, she's one of the first to admit to sex and it's always the girl who has sex that ends up dying in the horror movie.) Eventually, an intervention was performed by his editor who sat him down and explained that Janet must be given a reprieve and Alice is the one who has to be sacrificed. This surprised me greatly, as I always rather assumed Alice would have to die, too, (after all, in the first scene with Alice, the breaking of the glass animal seemed to suggest that she'd be similarly shattered in the end). When I asked how on earth the book would end with Alice alive, Lev started to explain, stopped and smirked. "No, it really wouldn't have worked at all well, would it?" (I'll talk more about Grossman's use of female characters in the novel later.)

8. Yes, there will be a sequel, and as of now, Lev Grossman is planning for a trilogy. (One of our group adamantly insisted that he simply couldn't plan a trilogy as it didn't have a chance of working well. Instead, she suggested, he should write a sequel and if things go well, then go for the third, but if he plans for three, he'll fail miserably. Lev took this in stride.)

I found a lot of what Grossman had to offer in our book club discussion to be fantastic. While I might have been the only one to come with a list of questions (it's just how I function, and hence why I have a ridiculous number of individual discussion points about the book), we always had things to ask and we spent nearly three hours in discussion. So from here on out, I'm basically just noting certain topics of conversation about the book (particular scenes or themes).

The epigraph. The book begins with a selection from Shakespeare's The Tempest. It's from act five, where Prospero is telling the audience that he's going to give up magic once he's back in the real world. In addition, when Quentin is taking the entrance exam for Brakebills, part of the exam asks him to read a passage from The Tempest and translate it into a made-up language. Clearly The Tempest means something to Grossman here -- which is not surprising in terms of the main character/author link. Prospero is frequently aligned with Shakespeare as an aging "magician" speaking directly to the audience as he spins his tales and controls the fates of those on stage. It doesn’t seem out of line that Grossman is making a nod to himself as Quentin – a dissatisfied creature who expects more from himself than what can be given. But I wanted to know why Grossman had selected this particular epigraph, as the idea of Quentin giving up magic is kind of ridiculous and Grossman seems to know that. Once exposed to magic, there's no going back. So when it looks like Quentin has "given up" magic at the end of the novel, I never believed for a moment that this would hold true. Grossman nodded and said that at the end of many fantasy novels (particularly Narnia, which was a huge influence here), everyone seems to get kicked out of the magical land and then return to the nonmagical one without too much fuss. They renounce magic and seem okay with it. Of course, it's not like they have to go back to their exact lives, but it's kind of a "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here" kind of thing. Grossman also said that he thought some people might have been fooled into believing that Quentin really was giving up on magic, though if they did, then they didn't quite understand what he was doing with much of this book.

The Brooklyn joke. Throughout the book, Grossman kind of beats this joke to death -- the idea that once he's gotten to Brakebills, Quentin hates Brooklyn and would rather die than return to it. Granted, I think this can stand for the larger idea of being banished to one's previous existence after having one's eyes opened to a bigger world than that which we knew. After all, no college student is totally comfortable when they return home for the holidays and find themselves in under his/her parent's roof and rules once more. Grossman himself lives in Brooklyn, so one must assume that he has some fondness for it, but he said that while he was writing this book, "I was living in Brooklyn over the Bagel Delight ... Brooklyn just seemed like the most unmagical place." (And yes, that would be in Park Slope, mere blocks from my apartment.) I suppose I fault Grossman's lack of imagination here, or perhaps it was simply a darker point of life that led him to believe there was no magic in the real world at all, and Brooklyn was the one to bear the weight of that accusation. Needless to say, though, the joke was overused and irritated this Brooklynite.

The idea of games in novels. In reading The Magicians one might easily come away with the idea that Grossman believed a magical game to be a staple of fantasy, something one must include but he didn't seem very pleased about doing so. Welters is somewhat based on chess because Grossman wanted there to be some measure of intellectual strategy (he did not reference the giant chess game from HP in his explanation), but during the game, Quentin essentially throws in the towel and suggests that the game is pointless. To me, this seems like pretty clear criticism. Grossman, however, said that he loves novels with games in them. Thus, I felt a huge disconnect in what the novel seemed to be saying about games and what Grossman seemed to suggest about his own feelings.

The issue of his female characters. For a bunch of feminists, this was a big topic for us. Grossman's female characters are simply not as developed as his male characters. Granted, no one is as well-developed as Quentin, but the female characters like Julia, Alice, and Janet tend to be vehicles for larger ideas rather than characters in their own rights. One of the suggestions that Grossman said he receives from people is to re-write The Magicians from the perspective of Julia, the girl who didn't make it into Brakebills and essentially loses it as a result. Julia tracks down Quentin and accosts him, pathetically showing him the magic that he assumes she learned off of an internet site. Of course, by the end of the novel, Julia is a hedgewitch with enough of a grasp on magic that Janet and Eliot seem to think she's an acceptable addition to their party which will return to Fillory. Janet is a girl of uncertain motivation, which is most likely the result of the drastic destiny change. Originally Grossman planned to kill her off, but instead, she survives to make us all wonder what her purpose might have been throughout the novel if not to serve as a casualty in the fight against the Beast, aside from sleeping with several other characters. Well, that and foolishly (and irrationally, I think) unleashing the cacodemon imprisoned in her back the night after she receives it because she feels sorry for it. And then there's Alice. Alice, whose brother died at Brakebills, turning into a niffin after performing a spell for a girl than went wrong. Alice is smart, loving, and sympathetic... yet she's still defined through her relationship with Quentin. Despite coming off as the best and brightest of her class, she's evidently content to do nothing in her first year out of Brakebills, contrary to her own impulses, simply because that's what Quentin wishes to do. It's natural that her depiction should be limited when viewed through the eyes of another, but I feel that Alice definitely got the short end of the stick here, because she could have been much more than simply the one who could see and do the things that Quentin could not.

The "fox rape" scene. When in Antarctica, the professor in charge turns the students into foxes for a while -- and in this baser state, without human inhibitions, Quentin and Alice have sex for the first time. In the scene, it's a little uncertain how willing Alice is in the situation, though it's noted that her eyes rolled with pleasure (and later she mentions that it was nice). What is clearly written is that these instincts simply took over them. While I referred to this as the "fox rape" scene in my head (and another of the girls in book club definitely saw this as a rape scene), I don't necessarily think this was a rape against Alice -- I kind of thought that both Quentin and Alice were violated when they were forced into this state where they had no control over the fact that they were attracted to each other. I'm also not outraged or upset with the scene's inclusion, though. I actually thought it was an interesting event, given the context of their whole world where they give themselves over to the judgment of their teachers. I would have been irritated if this event had suddenly opened them up to a real relationship, but instead, it was treated as this awkward thing that neither of them knew how to deal with. I was more skeptical about the detached orgies that seemed to happen when the students were in Antarctica (Grossman evidently was remembering Adams House at Harvard, which was called the sex dorm).

Very precise details that may or may not have a purpose. Now, fantasy novels are usually chock full of lovely details that often serve a purpose. Small, seemingly random, things are noted -- and chances are, you'll see them have meaning within the larger whole of the book. Oftentimes, we come across something early on that plays an important role later in the book. True for lots of fantasy and certainly true for J.K. Rowling, who always seemed to have something like this pop up in a book. There are a few things like that in The Magicians... and a few things that should have been tied in a whole lot better. In fact, a lot of things that should have been tied in. There was a great amount of detail that felt wasted to me... detail for the sake of detail, which is just poor writing.

An example of a good tie-in: When the paramedic (who we later learn was Jane Chatwin, the youngest of the children who went to Fillory) is introduced, it's noted that she has a single button that's different from the other buttons. Later, we're told that in the last Fillory book, the children are given buttons that would allow them to go to Fillory any time they wanted, but one of the older children hides them, insisting that it's not right that they should have that ability. The idea is that the buttons were lost forever, but in fantasy, few things are ever lost forever. An astute reader might put the button clues together early on, but it's not necessary. Penny finds a button and gets them to Fillory and we meet Jane later on. This was a great detail that slipped in and then had a purpose later on.

This, however, was one of the few things like that. There were many many other details that popped up and had no value. They only served as points of annoyance, because it was meaningless detail. (1) Quentin evidently calls Alice "Vix" as a term of endearment as a result of their foxy beginning... once. Or rather, it's mentioned that he called her this, but that's the only time we ever see it used. Chances are, this came up again in some draft, so really, it's poor editing to leave it in. (2) At the beginning of their magical education, the students spend night and day with a marble each -- and this marble is the focus for much of their initial experimentation. Quentin names his marble "Martin" (the name of the child who becomes "The Beast"). After such focus on the marbles, you'd think something might come up again later. All I can come up with is that this is hinting to the reader that the real Martin is much more important than we might realize, as he comes back as the Beast, but I feel like I'm just forcing meaning into that one. (3) Disciplines... everyone goes through the idea of having a Discipline but Quentin never tests into one... and then it hardly seems to matter! The only purpose seems to be to get Alice and Quentin closer to "the Physical Kids" -- Janet, Eliot and Josh -- but then the concept of Disciplines gets rather abandoned. It was rather annoying to introduce this structure and then never have anything come of it. It felt like the desire to "sort" people in an HP way. (4) The silver statue of the bird that is in Fogg's office. It's a partially transformed metal bird, serving perhaps as a reminder about magic that doesn't quite work. I asked Grossman if this was the weathervane that Richard was drunkenly convinced he could transform into a real bird. Grossman smiled and said he hadn't thought of that.

I could keep going, but I'll stop here. There wasn't any indication that these things would come back in future novels, but perhaps I'll be pleasantly surprised. (Well, except that Alice is dead, so we can't call her Vix. And we've moved beyond marbles. And Disciplines. So that leaves the silver bird.)

Alice and Quentin skip a year. A Brakebills education is supposed to last five years, but rather randomly, Quentin, Alice, and Penny are approached in their second year by faculty who suggest that they should take an exam to see if they're ready to skip a year. There's no purpose this, aside from banding them together and then breaking them apart. (This little threesome will be an important focal point later on, too, when Alice sleeps with Penny to get back at Quentin for his Janet/Eliot threesome.) When we asked him about this, he admitted that five years started to seem a little long, and this was an easy way to create the Alice-Quentin-Penny tension. I'm not quite sure that's enough for me, but ah well.

Slipping out of character. Grossman allows his characters to slip out of character when the mood suits or it’s good for a laugh. Pretentious and articulate young people are suddenly baffled when one of them has a somewhat complicated conversation with an adult; Quentin’s parents are first seen as concerned and then brushed off quite easily and find themselves surprised when he’s in the house and home on breaks; it’s suggested that Quentin has never called anyone “sir” before. It was irritating to see that it was easy to break out of character to have a laugh.

The stand-out sentences. Perhaps it's not a criticism of the book, but of Grossman's style. He has certain sentences that pop-out painfully. They're probably intended to be clever or beautiful and poetic... but really, they just seemed dreadfully out of place. They didn't even feel like Grossman, really, so I half-wondered if they were sentences or phrases that he had gotten from other places or people. Some examples: “That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog. To tell you the truth, I’m kind of glad he hit you.” and “Just then, for an instant, the film of reality slipped off the spokes of its projector.”

Of course, there were some great things that Grossman included, which I feel a need to list out here, as I know the overall tone of these points are fairly negative. (1) After talking about annoying lines, I'll start with a line that I really enjoyed. When Alice has just died and the Beast/Martin has been defeated: “Quentin either fainted or died, he didn’t know which.” (2) When the students are transformed into geese to fly off to Antarctica, I thought that Grossman did a great job of presenting a very single-focus perspective. I also liked the reality of things here; as when Quentin is tossed off the tower by a teacher and he “shat on her feet in panic.” (3) It was predictable, but I liked the fact that Quentin and Alice were the only ones to embark on the optional Antarctica survival trial. (4) The swearing. Sure, sometimes it's over-the-top, but it's nice to recognize that young adults swear a great deal, and certainly would in some of these situations. It was also interesting how Grossman would very consciously seem to make a stance on certain swearing... for instance, when the phrase "howling cunt" is used, he writes that "howling" was a big word at Brakebills that year. (5) My favorite scene of the book is when Quentin and Alice have split and Quentin loses it when he realizes that Alice has slept with Penny. Unable to do anything else, he seizes ahold of his anger and becomes a cheerleader for their departure for Fillory, which everyone has been consciously/unconsciously putting off. For once, Quentin becomes the one to actually *do* something. (6) And finally, here's a big one. I didn't so much appreciate the explicitness of certain things when it came to Quentin's opinion on magic, but if he was going to do it, I liked how he phrased it when Alice talks to Quentin: “That’s what makes you different from the rest of us, Quentin. You actually believe in magic. You do realize, right, that nobody else does? I mean, we all know magic is real. But you really believe in it. Don’t you.” Quentin *believes* in magic magic, he doesn’t just trust it as a type of science. Of course, this is also part of the fact that he believes magic can make him happy, which he slowly comes to realize is not the case.

And last but not least... the whole unhappiness issue. It pervades the entire book. I would have preferred this to be a bit subtler, but nope. From the very beginning, Quentin is unhappy. Indeed, it almost appears as though he blames books for his unhappiness, or at least for giving him a vision of happiness that he cannot achieve: “In Fillory, things mattered in a way they didn’t in this world. In Fillory you felt the appropriate emotion when things happened. Happiness was a real, actual, achievable possibility. It came when you called. Or no, it never left you in the first place.” Grossman has pointed out in interviews that he wrote The Magicians while struggling with his own depression, so he certainly channeled his own experience to craft that of Quentin's. Indeed, Grossman noted at our book club that he thinks Quentin's depression clouded his abilities -- that he was on the cusp of not making it into Brakebills because it blinded him to certain things, and so he required the extra push from Fogg to get out of the haze to recognize what he was capable of doing. Even when he makes it into Brakebills, Quentin "experiments" with being happy... laughing out loud and toying with the idea, but it doesn't suggest that anything is genuinely felt. At one point, Quentin wonders, “Wasn’t there a spell for making yourself happy? Somebody must have invented one. How could he have missed it? Why didn’t they teach it?” The only surprising thing here is that to recognize his unhappiness suggests that he had somehow broken out of it for a time. Prior to the obsessive studying required for skipping up a year, Quentin doesn't seem happy, but he must not have been quite as down, for he notices a difference as he slides: “He recognized the irritable, unpleasant, unhappy person he was becoming: he looked strangely like the Quentin he thought he’d left behind in Brooklyn.” Of course, Quentin feels terribly alone in his unhappiness (and Grossman has said that he was definitely wrestling with his own depression while writing part of The Magicians, but not a single one of the magicians seem happy and each one of them has different ways of dealing with this. When asked why most people can’t do magic, Eliot says: “One, it’s very hard, and they’re not smart enough. Two, it’s very hard, and they’re not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to get it right.” He continues with points, but this second point is perhaps the most telling. Shortly after that, there's a scene where Quentin and Eliot are on the river, looking at the eight-woman skull out of West Point -- it's beautiful summer weather for Quentin and Eliot, but it's cold and gray for the women, who are described as grim. Quentin and Eliot know that the enchantment on Brakebills locks the women out of the beautiful summer weather that Quentin and Eliot got to experience. But really, it’s Quentin and Eliot who are the miserable ones, it simply has nothing to do with the weather. I rather enjoyed the dark and twisted Fogg who takes the graduates into the cellar where they're forced to have a cacodemon imprisoned in their backs. Fogg (who seems to have given the unhappiness issue even more thought than the students) asks them, “Can a man who can cast a spell every really grow up? ... I think you’re magicians because you’re unhappy.” He twists this into something positive, that magicians can use the pain, but he doesn’t seem to make a terribly convincing case here. Indeed, when we see adult magicians, we see Alice's eccentric parents who seem to live separate lives. Later, when Alice and Quentin are having sex in her parents’ house, Alice makes Quentin promise her that they’ll be happy, and she says it as though they’re arguing. The novel says that Quentin wouldn’t have disagreed with her in the throes of sex, but it doesn’t explicitly say that he promised, and indeed, if he had, that's a promise he would have broken. I'm not sure if Lev Grossman was all that surprised when my book club unanimously agreed that, without medication, Quentin has no chance of ever being happy. And even with medication, I'm a little skeptical. (Side note: the effects of medication mixed with magic... this was never touched upon in the book and I was a little surprised. Perhaps in the sequel.) Clearly, the question of whether these unsatisfied people can ever be happy is a main question of the book, and indeed, the book seems to suggest that the best one can hope for is simply to be invested in a project. Or at least that seems to be the best Quentin can hope for.

So... that was a very long review/discussion topic post. Sorry about that. I did a lot of studying of this book to make sure we were prepared to meet the author, and on top of that, this really was an interesting book in the commentary it make about magic and fantasy. I didn't like the main character and the book felt like it could have achieved so much more with the material, but ultimately, it was a really great book for discussion and one has to give Grossman credit for bringing this idea into the market.

1 comment:

Aerrin99 said...

Hello! Followed you over here from LT and just wanted to say that I found your review very, very interesting, and I really appreciate the info on Grossman's points of view! I just finished the novel last night and it's kind of spinning around in my head - I have many of the same thoughts that you do.

thanks for sharing!