Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Magicians

 "He's trying to use the Neitherlands to get to Middle Earth. I think he wants to be the first man to have sex with an elf." 
- Janice

   I should immediately point out that I am a fan of classic children's fantasy literature. I've read Harry Potter more times than I can count, once read my sisterThe Hobbit because my dad was working and she needed a bedtime story, hell, I still have a soft spot in my heart for E. Nesbitt, she of The Enchanted Castle andFive Children and It. All of these are lovely books, though a little stilted and of course weathered by time. They've aged well, but even something that's aged well will still show its age in spots. The reason that I point this out is mainly becauseThe Magicians by Lev Grossman appears to hate me. Which is fine by me, because I hate it right back.

Oh yes, dear reader, it's another one of those kinds of reviews.

I found this book through rather interesting channels. When it came out not two years ago, it was well-lauded by the press and poised to become a classic in its own right. As it had been called one of the best fantasy novels of a rather strange and twisted year in my life, naturally, I had to read it. That first time, the book defeated me utterly. I simply couldn't finish it. I found it boring, the characters apathetic, and the plot in general mostly a pointless framework for the author's sneering disdain. However, at BEA, I was "delighted" to find out (in an event I later blocked from memory because of how this book affected me) that Mr. Grossman wrote a sequel, to be published in august, called The Magician King. When I finally remembered the book months later, I remembered only how bad I thought it was, and wondered why it (much like Mr. Mann's efforts are getting a sequel) would have ever made it past the first book.

  With a renewed sense of purpose, I set out to my local library in search of a copy of The Magicians, determined to get through it and look at it from a less-biased viewpoint for the purposes of review. I sat down and read, and read, and read some more, taking two weeks to finish the book and finally come to some kind of conclusion. And my conclusion is thus:
This is the most intelligently-written pile of twaddle masquerading as a book that this site will ever have to review. Possibly until the sequel.

 The problem, of course, is not the quality, but the content therein. For the most part, it's a viciously stupid book, one which has decided upon a campaign of deconstruction and pursues it so doggedly that at times it rivaled its fellows in the deconstructionist fantasy movement for sheer unsubtlety and lack of taste. It does show brief signs of brilliance and potential-- the idea of post-college mages living out a Bret Easton Ellis-style drugs-partying-drinking-sex "I love this oh god I'm empty inside and destroy everything good I know" existence is an idea whose time, I believe, has come, especially now with the final rose being laid on the bier of the Harry Potter series-- but most often, it falls flat. The point it appears to be trying to make (and it's possible I missed the point, but given the quality and tone of the book, I don't care) is that the reality of all these fantasy worlds is a lot darker and nastier than the children's books we grew up with would allow us to believe. That it tries to get this done with loathsome characterization, sequences of events so far apart in their establishment that it almost seems like everything comes out of nowhere, and other, equally glaring faults.

The Magicians starts with Quentin Coldwater vanishing a nickel in a sleight of hand trick. He and his two friends, James and Julia, are going to an interviewer to see about a spot at Princeton. When he and James finally arrive at the interview, the interviewer is dead, Quentin grabs a mysterious folder with a book by one of his favorite authors in it, and receives an invitation to Brakebills College. Following the invitation, he finds himself in a summer garden. From there, the story follows Quentin from school to that time after school, and finally into the land of Fillory, a land from his favorite book series, though one that has not remained static with the passage of time. Quentin will lose friends, grow as a person, and finally realize who he is before the end, and all of it will take a lot out of him.

Well, in theory, anyway. Quentin is the kind of privileged, overachieving shit you always hated to be around in high school, the kid to whom Ivy League status was a foregone conclusion, who passed every test and couldn't afford to be friends with many people because he had his future to think about. He doesn't grow through the book so much as he just sort of shuffles from one scene to the next, often with bitter comments and empty displays of emotion. The book is set up so in places he succeeds almost in spite of himself-- to get into Brakebills, he has to pass the AP exam from Hell, all the magic is based on studying and repeating over and over again, he passes easily through the grades within a few months instead of a few years...the only time he's really challenged is in the last third of the book, and even then, that's only because the author stops writing challenges tailored to him and puts him in the frame of a traditional fantasy.

A problem that goes hand in hand with this one is that the main conflict is internal. Now, I've had no problems with internal conflicts in the past, Richard Kadrey's work is rife with them and one of my favorite books, The Neverending Story has this as the very central conflict. But here, it's Quentin wrestling with questions everyone else, up to and including the reader, already know the answers to. And when he engages in self-sabotage, it doesn't feel like there's anything attached. Some pretentious idiots have attempted to say "but you're feeling what he's feeling!" And the answer to that is no. In fact, utilising my law of precision F strike for reviews,fuck no. If I were feeling what Mr. Grossman insists I feel, I'd put a bullet right through my own eye, like the hero in a (not much) better Harlan Ellison story. Not a single thing Quentin does applies to any particular identifiable logic, save for maybe the denouement, which I'll get to.

Moving to another track, however, we come to the fact that the book openly insults any lover of fantasy fiction who decides to read it. At first it's merely the mocking tone and the overly-technical nature of magic, saying something to the effect of "What, you thought it was going to be easier than this?" as its academically-focused heroes go through complex hand gestures.
But then comes Welters. And the mocking and sneering Mr. Grossman decides he is done with the earlier, subtle mummery and decides to drop it entirely.

And oh, dear reader, you will wish he hadn't. Welters, you see, is a deconstruction of many magical games, most notably Quidditch*. Unlike those games, however, you never get to know the rules (except that they're stupid and they involve capturing squares on a board, and that there's a ball), everyone openly declares that the game is "stupid and pointless", and they play multiple games of it. In a further deconstruction of the trope, the Physical Kids (the book's heroes, named such because they study the physical discipline of mag-- y'know what? Screw it. Not important) lose several matches. However, in one particular scene, a drugged-out student makes derisive comments about "gotta get in my Quidditch robes" and something about "I don't suppose you have a time turner?" which caused me to put a dent in my wall across the room from where I read. Thankfully, the book was spared from further abuse due to my enduring love of the Metuchen Public Library, whom I would have to pay. That Mr. Grossman stooped to openly attacking his targets is lazy, and in fact not even amusingly unsubtle. There are ways to attack one's subjects, and then there are rudimentary methods loved by only the most zealous and pretentious. Such as Mr. Grossman, who places his literary significance above authors of a higher quality and skill.
And this tone doesn't change at all. In fact, the character of Josh seems to be there simply as a mouthpiece for how much every classic fantasy novel sucks, where the character of Quentin is supposed to herald some kind of new deconstructionist hero and a third character, and obligatory love interest named Alice is meant to hew to how the books traditionally work, which of course means she gets killed in a final confrontation with the slightly newer kind of villain. Spoilers be damned, if you made it this far through the review, you're probably only reading the book out of morbid curiosity anyway.

And as a final point, a final capstone, plot elements are called back to in a random fashion. I paid attention to the book, reading it over the course of a week (I could only do it in small doses. You will forgive my failings or at least understand that they come with great intestinal fortitude), and I still couldn't tell where some of the elements that everyone seemed to know about came from until I recalled earlier portions of the book, then went back and read through them. If Chekhov's Gun is the rule that if you have a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act, it will be fired in the third; Grossman's Gun** is the gun that is unloaded, uncocked, and left in a locked drawer offstage during the first act, only to suddenly go off and blow someone's head off in the third after all and sundry have forgotten it. It makes no narrative sense, and the callbacks are annoying, not informative to the plot.

However, despite this, there is some light. The book is astonishingly well-written, the characters do tend to have their own voices, and the descriptions are top-notch. This would actually be a good book if the characterization and indeed the plot weren't such steaming piles of absolute and complete garbage. As for the denouement (I told you I'd get back to it...might be my own little Grossman's Gun there, but it's there), it's the one part of the book I liked. It's sweet, even if it recalls characters who have had no bearing on the plot whatsoever, and it's a nice few passages where things are almost put back into balance for the horrid book that came before it. Almost. In it, Quentin almost appears human, and while Josh gets another moment about how lame all fantasy novels are, it does end things on a little beautiful note.

And then you realize the book has a sequel, which destroys the impact of the ending a little.
So in conclusion, I cannot recommend this book. Ever. To anyone. I do know there are people out there, literary hipsters, let's call them, who will read this and enjoy it. Good for them. For anyone who actually enjoys reading, however, give this book a pass.

Next time:
American Gods
Please, God, anything but this again

* A word which still has not appeared in my spellcheck menu, which both gives me hope and a bit of sadness.

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