2012 in Books So Far (Pt. 1)

So, I haven’t been reading anywhere near as much as usual but there are a few books I’ve got right now or finished recently that I thought I’d write a bit about.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I have mixed feelings about this novel.

It centres around a cynical young New Yorker, Quentin Coldwater, who manages to discover that the magic he’s read and dreamed about all his young life is actually real and totally accessible. His escape from reality into the highly elite Brakebills college doesn’t, however, relieve him from the entrenched disaffection that permeates his life. Initially, it does spark a light in him but it’s a light that falters beneath heavy academic competition from the other brilliant students, fostering the recognition that he’s actually not that special or if he is, there are those more gifted than he. In Brooklyn at least, though he wasn’t popular and couldn’t get the girl he loved, he took comfort in knowing his intelligence set him aside.

At Brakebills, suddenly reduced to near-normality, the magic ends up taking a sidestep to the usual adolescent suspects of drinking, partying, and sex.  It is only here, in this alternate, magical place that Quentin becomes “normal” and it’s fair to say that he revels in being a teenager.

At its heart, I think this novel centres around, and savagely attacks, notions of entitlement. Here is an intelligent well-to-do kid with the world at his feet and nothing but bitterness and a jaded, cynical attitude to show for it – this reality isn’t enough for him, it’s not like the books he’s so assiduously read, there’s no magic, no Fillory (Fillory being the fantasy world created by a popular author, in this case acting as an allegory for The Chronicles of Narnia) and he’s certainly no hero. And yet, Quentin more than simply wants it, he expects it.

Despite this, when the miraculous occurs and Quentin stumbles across the college of Brakebills, he is unable to shake entirely free of his malaise. This is because while it’s magical, it’s also real, filled with real people, and rife with its own set of rules, regulations, and moral codes of behaviour. As well, the pressures of cutthroat teen social life are even more present here. He could still be unpopular. He could still be an outcast.

Now that magic is real, it’s also somehow lessened; its teaching is a chore to be undertaken, a science to be learned. It’s homework and there’s only so much of that a teenager can take, right? This is where, personally, I am most conflicted about the novel and here’s why: while reading it, I spend most of my time wanting to throttle the vast majority of these whiny, selfish, ungrateful bastards, which is partly the point I expect. It makes for unpleasant reading but it’s fascinating nonetheless. Essentially, author Lev Grossman has taken the wide-eyed optimism (and premise) of the Chronicles of Narnia and transported it into modern day New York, giving the gift of Narnia not to well-meaning, wildly enthusiastic British children but to the disenfranchised youth of today. The question then posed is, how would they react, and how does the story change?

It’s a compelling reflection, too, on the power of literature, especially that of books idolised in childhood. Quentin worships the books of Fillory, as do most kids in his world; it set his imagination on fire, it lifted him from the doldrums of an awkward, unhappy life and took him somewhere else. Somewhere different. However, it also promised him far more than the real world could ever give him, and so in liberating him, chained him. From that point on, the world could only disappoint him. It was not bright and cheerful, obstacles were not there simply to be overcome in a few simple steps, happiness wasn’t guaranteed while ideals were enshrined by honest, upright, good people. Kids didn’t grow up to be who they wanted, who they imagined themselves to be. Quentin certainly didn’t, certainly wasn’t. Society can never fulfil that promise, so illicitly gained from literature.

In that respect, giving Quentin access to Brakebills is one of the cruellest blows imaginable. Yes, your bright shiny magic exists, but guess what, you’re still Quentin Coldwater, you’re still that shitty little kid from Brooklyn — you can’t ever run away from that. What’s more, while it exists, it’s not exactly how you thought it’d be. Not how you dreamed of it. Turning that long-held dream into reality robs even the imagination – you can’t return to it, unchanged, year after idle year, it’s here now, and it is flawed and broken and ugly.

Quentin never quite faces up to these truths, they exist uneasily beneath the surface, a constant gnawing sense of unease, and in fact, he spends a remarkable amount of time trying desperately not to come to terms with it. Instead, he, his friends and girlfriend Alice breeze through college life until they graduate and are spat back into the mundane world.

Here, these magicians have the world at their feet. Money is no issue and life is a party. This section, I feel, is one of the strengths of the book and touches on a theme, an idea, a question and a problem faced by all young adults at some stage in their lives: what’s next? I’ve been to school, I’ve graduated, the world is seemingly waiting at my fingertips, just waiting for me to beckon in which direction I want to go…and there is an absence of purpose. It hits Quentin hard, and he comes to realise that he’s no longer partying for the sake of it but to avoid coming to terms with his apathy, his total and utter lack of motivation. The climax of this particular narrative arc is the dinner party in which Quentin, out of nothing but sheer boredom, ends up cheating on his girlfriend Alice and having a threesome with his two shallow, obnoxious friends.

The full impact of hitting rock bottom isn’t felt, however, as a former classmate and fellow magician, Peggy, bursts into their apartment to inform them of his major discovery — the world of Fillory exists and he knows how to get to it. But even now, with an all-access pass to Fillory – to Narnia! – this purest of fictional landscapes, Quentin is resentful. After all, how can he be the hero of this story? He didn’t find the magical button that would take them there, he wasn’t as advanced as Peggy, clearly, and he’d just broken his girlfriend’s heart with a despicable act.

He’s so far removed from being the hero, in fact, that he doesn’t dare give credence to Peggy’s claim of having discovered Fillory and heaps scorn on him instead. I won’t go into details here, this has already gone on longer than I anticipated – suffice to say that the themes I spoke about earlier, of the imagined becoming real and the inherent inability of these characters to deal with or even fully appreciate it, are revisited at length.

Thematically and conceptually, I love what Grossman is doing and can appreciate it on an artistic level. Really, though, there’s only so much douchebagery I can stand and there is no doubt in mind that the vast majority of these characters are douchebags. I just don’t want to spend any time with them – how can they be so blasé about the wonders of magic? How can they be so infuriatingly selfish, ungrateful, and spiteful? And yet, you read on in the hope that redemption is somewhere to be found. These characters are, after all, reflections of us all to some extent; although to a greater extent it is representative of the entitled few, the middle and upper classes.

In summary, this is an interesting but ultimately bitter novel that even now leaves me unsure as to where I stand. I wonder, though, how much of that is due to my own subjective desire for my fictional landscapes to remain untouched, unsullied and forever unchanged. There is a comfort in that which is difficult to articulate and it is a comfort Grossman delights in taking away.

Other books I’m reading (but won’t have time to go into now) include:

The Weird edited by Jeff and Anne VanderMeer (anthology)
The Gormenghast Trilogy
by Mervyn Peake
The Magician King by Lev Grossman
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang
Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard
The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth
The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami (anthology)
The Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher
King Rat by China Meiville

March 20, 2012
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