Sunday, January 17, 2010

Writer as magician (Books - The Magicians by Lev Grossman)

Lev Grossman's The Magicians might be called the anti-Harry Potter. It is at once a fantasy novel and criticism of the fantasy novel, an entertainment and a tragedy. In reading it, one is diverted but it is not escapist. Its writer might be thought the love-child of J. K. Rowlings and Herman Hesse. This is the first book in a long while I was compelled to read late into the night until I had finished it.

The protagonist, Quentin, is highly intelligent, nearing high school graduation, the third wheel to a relationship between his best friend and the girl he is crazy about (actually Quentin feels third wheel to just about everything). He is discovered by a school for young people with aptitude for magic. He passes the test and is subsumed into a world that is all about learning to use that power. The school is in upstate New York and is cleverly masked from the ordinary world. Spells are woven so that Quentin's clueless parents believe their son is away at a prestigious college. Yes, this is a magic school just like Hogwarts, it is called Brakebills, and even a game played with a small ball and magic spells called welters. And yes, it's hero comes of age through hardship, traffic with evil, and disappointment in love. But The Magicians has more subtlety, more intelligence, and way more grit than Rowlings's made-for-the-movies fairy tale. Grossman's narrative voice is more disgruntled and more wry - you could say Salingeresque - and is more frank about its violence, its drugs, and its sex - this is a story about contemporary teenagers after all.
He would have thought he'd gone all the way to Seventh Avenue by now. He shoved his way even deeper in, brushing up against who knew what toxic flora. A case of poison fucking ivy, that's all he needed now. It was odd to see that here and there among the dead plants a few vital green stalks still poked up, drawing sustenance from who knew where. He caught a whiff of something sweet in the air.

He stopped. All of a sudden it was quiet. No car horns, no stereos, no sirens. His phone had stopped ringing. It was bitter cold, and his fingers were numb. Turn back or go on? He squeezed farther in through a hedge, closing his eyes and squinching up his face against the scratchy twigs. He stumbled over something, an old stone. He suddenly felt nauseous. He was sweating.

When he opened his eyes again he was standing on the edge of a huge wide, perfectly level green lawn surrounded by trees. The smell of ripe grass was overpowering. There was hot sun on his face.

The sun was at the wrong angle. And where the hell were the clouds? The sky was blinding blue. His inner ear spun sickeningly He held his breath for a few seconds, then expelled freezing winter air from his lungs and breathed in warm summer air in its place. It was thick with floating pollen. He sneezed.
Grossman is great on creating atmosphere, momentum and point-of-view with his narrative - not just in weaving story. So all the necessary elements are in place - who, where, and what. Now what is he up to?

This is a book about the interplay of three things - power, love, and fantasy. It tells a story about a magical world, but at the same time it openly mocks escapist fantasy. Sometimes Grossman zings a few cute barbs at Harry Potter, but that's just a way of acknowledging that the similarities are intentional but they are not all. Quentin and all his circle at the magic college read in their youth a series of fantasy books that Grossman obviously means us to associate with C. S. Lewis's Narnia series. Quentin, in particular, with his desire to escape the real world as he cannot discover his place in it, was an expert in this fictional one. Re-reading these stories and escaping into them long after most of his acquaintances were tentatively experimenting with sex and drugs. If the magical world is the foil to the real and non-fantastical world of most grown-up people in Grossman's novel, the world of Fillory and Further (Grossman's Narnia) is the counter-foil to the real-magical world Grossman creates and his reader comes to believe in. These layers of fantasy are important because Grossman wants us to accept the magical school and powers as a reality that exists alongside our own.
"Sometimes I wonder if man was really meant to discover magic," Fogg said expansively. "It doesn't really make sense. It's a little too perfect, don't you think? 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 - reality is tough, unyielding stuff, and it doesn't care what you think or feel or say about it. Or it shouldn't. You deal with it, and you get on with your life.

"Little children don't know that. Magical thinking: that's what Freud called it. Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children. The separation of word and thing 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 together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.
The layers of fantasy are also important because literature itself bridges this separation of word and thing, making worlds where none existed before. It is not surprising that children, adolescents especially, figure so frequently in fantasy literature - they still move between the worlds of word and thing with less to-do. However, their power to link word and world is tied up in the maelstrom of their very strong feelings - their love, loneliness, and pain. It is only supposedly mastering oneself as an adult that one can harness the powers called magic in these stories.

Grossman mercifully does not play simple-mindedly with the notions of good and evil in this story. His fanstasy within a fantasy creates an Escherian narrative - a hand writing a story of a hand writing a story.... - the creatures who do good are not all good, nor are those who wreak havoc all bad. Grossman's critic's eye (he is the book critic of Time magazine) never leaves him in this novel. He comments on books like the Harry Potter and Narnia series because he is writing a fantasy that will not let us escape. One will hopefully love in this life, this book says, but then one will not escape from the pain of loss. And while it may be attractive when one hurts to simply envision oneself as a character in the narrative of an all-powerful author, characters are themselves authors of multiple narratives, each with their own characters. We are not merely victims we also all have power over others and as adults we must be mindful of whether we use that power for good or evil.

Grossman has a fantastic imagination. One of my favorite scenes in this novel was a segment during their magical education when Quentin and his friends were turned into swans to migrate to special training site. The visceral reality of this segment was powerfully enveloping and marvelously fun. The writer I associate Grossman mot with is Herman Hesse. A romantic sensibility fueled with a critical point-of view about the culture he lives in and expressed in a narrative that is entertaining, intelligent and inevitable. Occasionally he can not resist gilding the lily, with one too many a curly-cue in a sentence or the use of a word that stops this reader to make him say - what a smart guy this Lev Grossman is. With five pages left to this fantastic book at one am., did I really need to stop to look up the word aeruginous? But this is one of a few rare glitches that occasionally reminded me that Grossman is a human writer, not a real magician. Fantastic stuff. It's nice to write a rave so early in the year!

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