Friday, January 10, 2014

When Magic Isn't Magical: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians

Lev Grossman's The Magicians was described to me as “a grown-up Harry Potter,” and while that makes for glib description in retrospect, that’s pretty much what it is: a team of teenagers attend a magical college called Brakebills, with plenty of colourful characters and adolescent debauchery to populate it. It’s an easy sell. Here's what was missing from the Harry Potter universe: copious sex and drinking.

The Magicians is in reality an odd duck, a novel which confused me not through plot intricacy, difficult language, or even authorial incompetence, but through a mismatch between my expectations and reality – namely, the expectation that had been bred in me that The Magicians was going to stand up to scrutiny against Harry Potter. Oddly fitting, too, considering that the protagonist, a young Brooklyn wizard named Quentin Coldwater, struggles with this very dichotomy in what becomes the novel’s major theme. Quentin is unwittingly enrolled in a secret school of magic, which fulfills his every escapist fantasy. He comes to learn, however, that fantasies aren’t necessarily much better than reality. In its handling of these so-called “mature themes” – what it calls “the horror of really getting what you think you want” – The Magicians is canny, providing more than a few moments of hungover cynicism that struck rather too close to home. But though I’m inclined to say that its angsty insight trumps Harry Potter’s storybook naiveté, The Magicians’ fundamental storytelling is where the comparison falls flat.

J.K. Rowling is a consummate storyteller in her sense of pacing; she expertly drip-fed us tantalizing details about the intricacies of the wizarding world, for which we became insatiably hungry. With each subsequent book she ladled out more and more of her fictional universe, and we came to know its workings nearly as well as those of our own. How else to explain supplemental texts like The Tales of Beedle The Bard, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, and Quidditch Through The Ages – books which, until recently, existed only fictionally in the Harry Potter universe? As readers we made it clear that we wanted to know more, and Rowling was only too pleased to indulge us. Grossman is not so generous. He doesn't allow his fictional universe room enough to breathe. We’re given glimpses of the kind of magic performed at Brakebills, but never in detail – we know it involves complex wordplay and delicate hand motions, but few to none are explained or enumerated. We meet the bizarre professors who each specialize in a different form of magic, but learn little about their characters, pasts, or fields of study. These elements – which Grossman seems to regard as indulgent – are what give life and colour and richness to a fantasy setting. But I want more! I want to feel, with the proper application of effort and knowledge, that I could perform the magic I read about in The Magicians. But it remains enigmatic to me, even when it becomes effortless and trite to the characters, and I’m left feeling unsatisfied. To wit: we don’t learn anything about the magic they use, and they don’t even enjoy using it. You're left asking: Shouldn't magic at least be fun?

author Lev Grossman (photo by Elena Siebert)

But of course, as the book wears on, it becomes very clear that magic isn’t the point, and that hoping for magic may itself be the problem. I won’t go further for fear of treading into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that Grossman crafts a world which may well be fascinating, original, and unique, but we’re kept at arm’s length from it. Quentin and his classmates are their own conundrum: they’re both consistently entertaining and consistently boring. Their frequent hijinks (most involving expensive wine, illicit spells, and unrestricted coitus) and the winking references to pop culture and even, bravely, Harry Potter are what kept me turning pages. Instead of evolving, though, they begin as cardboard cut-outs and never fully make the transition into flesh and blood. Quentin’s roller-coaster relationship with a shy yet powerful classmate is a major part of The Magicians, but the foundations are missing. Their emotions are raw and beautifully expressed, but I never got to know them as characters; it felt kind of like stumbling midway into a stage performance where the actors are giving their all, but you have no idea what they’re shouting about.

While Grossman's writing is urbane and witty, and there’s a metric tonne of originality on display, The Magicians feels like a size ten novel squeezed into a size eight. Grossman could easily have indulged in a few extra pages and still kept my attention – perhaps some simple scenes of character interaction, to give us a chance to learn about who these people really are. Instead the plot rushes along at a pace which is breathless rather than exciting, and I would have appreciated some space to invest myself in its outcome. It's too bad that books don’t work the same way as Blu-ray. I would simply wait for the Director’s Cut.

Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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