The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman, a story that adapts childrens’ fantasy novels for grownups, is two stories together.

The inner story in the fantasy frame structure is a thought experiment exploring what happens when you run a children’s fantasy plot with adult characters. Fantasy classics the Chronicles of Narnia, Peter Pan – create enchanted worlds that are accessible to children – when a character reaches adolescence the magical world is out of reach; or the characters can stay in the enchanted land only if they resist growing up.

In the Magicians, Grossman has characters in their 20s travel to a magical world as adults. This is an opportunity for irony and dark humor. Cute things become dodgy or sinister – there is an alcoholic talking bear and lethal stuffed bunny. Characters can ask some of the logical questions – if character has a time machine, why do they not go back in time to fix problems; if a character is a god, why do they need others to help solve problems and allow suffering in the universe; and what’s the motivation of adults who write childrens fantasy novels anyway?

The adult characters and ironic tone facilitate the political questions implicit in the genre – when humans travel to an strange land and become heroes through combat and leaders by apparent local acclaim, isn’t there an element of colonialism? When there are sides in a conflict, how can you tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys”, or maybe there’s just a civil war, and the humans are being manipulated by the locals.

The inner story, the Narnia takeoff, has flaws as a story. It tries to combine irony and straight up plot, with setup, conflict, combat, and denouement, and does so unevenly. There are time travel mechanics and political machinations, where each development creates different understanding until the whole thing is unravelled at the end. I think the puzzle creation and resolution works well. The story and drama, not so much. But even though the half-parody of the Narnia genre has its flaws, I enjoyed the playing out of the thought experiment.

Where the inner story plays on Narnia and its cousins, the outer frame story plays off of Harry Potter; the characters are students at a college for magicians. But the main references, the way it reads to me, are Yale/Harvard (the author studied at both schools), and novels of GenX anti-coming-of-age.

The campus buildings at Brakebill are retro architecture with details full of stories, the school’s customs are thick with ritual and tradition, the schoolwork itself has appealing substance and rigor, the students are expected to master the discipline and also to grow into adult sexuality, alcohol, and connoisseurship. The elite selection and socialization inculcates participants from a variety of class backgrounds into a ethnicity-free international upper-middle-class, where participants from Europe and South America are known for their accents and locally styled skills, but not any substantive differences.

But when students graduate and are forced to leave this idyll, there is nowhere to go but an empty world where choices are high-paying management consulting, finance, and law; genteel academia; public service taking little bites out of unsolveable problems. Graduates defer vapid adulthood with alcohol and drug-fueled chronic hipsterism. The Brakebills network insulates graduates from the economic consequences of slackerdom, as long as their misadventures are short of fatal.

When students make it through the rigorous selection process to study magic at Brakebills, they leave behind the vapidity of modern life and enter a world where gestures and sounds take on meaning and power, where the mix of diligently acquired craft and self-discovered spirit can transform reality. Magic, yeah sure, Grossman is talking about art in general and literature in particular.

There is an odd exchange in the book, where one of the characters observes that Quentin, the main character “believes in magic”, unlike most of his peers. This is strange, given that magic at Brakebills is indubitably real – characters cast spells that change physical reality. There is no doubt that magic happens in the world of the story. What characters believe in, or don’t, is the meaning of magic, it’s power to rise above the purposeless, emptiness, and misery of life.

The strongest characteristic of Quentin, the main character, is his chronic unhappiness and self-hatred, which he takes out on himself and those around him, an observation that his too-good girlfriend makes explicitly, a weakness in the “show-not-tell” esthetic of fiction, and a handy moral summary for the perhaps-dense reader. This is the allegory of the frame narrative – young artist learns his craft and struggles with the hope that it will redeem life, and the apparent reality that it doesn’t; that life is one thing after another; that misery comes from within, and that being a jerk has consequences.

The Magician explores the tensions between the esthetics of the modern novel (write what you know, often a world without given meaning or morality) and fantasy literature (explore a world of the imagination, where good and evil are explicit). The book is an interesting exploration of the contrasts between those expectations. As in the GenX coming-of-age novels that the frame story resembles, the world of adulthood that the young magicians grow into has sex and drugs and alcohol, but no consequences or responsibilities. That’s a valid fictional world, and a somewhat claustrophobic reading experience.

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