The Magicians by Lev Grossman: A Review.
**Spoiler alert** this is not a cliffhanger review, this is an actual book review.
Close your eyes for a minute. Closed? Okay, good. Now, I want you to imagine what happen if C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling and Frederich Nietzsche decided to collaborate on a literary project. What are you seeing right now? What you should be seeing is The Magicians by Lev Grossman. What an odd, perplexing, depressing, engaging and entertaining work of fiction. This story is literally the love child of the Chronicles of Narnia, Hogwarts and Nihilism. Quentin Coldwater is the main protagonist. He belongs to an upper middle class family and is exceptionally smart. The story starts out with him on his way to an interview to get into an ivy league school. Though he is of advanced intelligence, he is obsessed with the fictional fantasy land of Fillory.
Fillory is the fantasy land featured in five children’s novels by Christopher Plover. They follow the Chatwin children who (are you ready?) live in England during the Great War. The children are sent off to the country side to live with their aunt and uncle because their father is off in Belgium, fighting the war and their mother has gone insane and has been committed. Over the course of the five novels they enter Fillory via various portals (such as inside a Grandfather clock) and go on various quests; befriend talking animals; become royalty; grow and age and then return to England only to discover that little to no time has passed. Sound familiar?
Quentin is eternally unsatisfied because, to him, life appears meaningless. He longs for the world of Fillory; he longs to be transported there and find adventure and heroism and escape from the sad reality that is every day life in New York City. Lucky for him, Quentin gets invited to an entrance exam at Brakebills. Brakebills is a magical prepatory school in Upstate New York. It is a lot like Hogwarts only the teenagers do the things you’d imagine teenagers would do when their parents are away. Quentin passes the entrance exams and is invited to study magic. He can’t believe it: there really is a magical world after all!
Unfortunately for Quentin, the initial excitement of this new world eventually wears off and he once again becomes depressed. He graduates school and moves to New York City with his girlfriend where he promptly enters a serious hedonistic lifestyle of sex, drugs and alcohol. This descent into depravity only halts when Penny, an old acquaintance from Brakebills shows up with an incredible announcement: Fillory is real and he can take them there.
This news transforms Quentin as it appears that finally, he has found meaning to his life. He and his friends assemble and begin planning their grand adventure into the magical land of Fillory. Meanwhile, Quentin’s most important relationship (with his girlfriend Alice) falls apart because of infidelity. And so now, more than ever, Quentin urges the group to enter Fillory. They arrive in the land to discover something is seriously amiss. The local animal population quickly enlists them to travel deep into a mountainous cavern to retrieve the royal crowns and become the next kings and queens of Fillory. Then and only then, will everything be made right. They are even given fighting guides.
They finally get to their destination and serious, bloody fighting ensues. People get grievously wounded and some even die (I won’t give away all the details). The “good” guys win and reclaim the crown but no one wants it. It turns out the allure of the fairy tale proved too grisly even for the hedonists. Quentin awakes in a monastery run by Centaurs and takes a long time to recover from his energies and then spends more time learning and mastering his magical abilities.
Why he does that is still somewhat puzzling. Perhaps because he is still seeking meaning and purpose to life? Finally, he gets out of Fillory, returns to NYC and takes a cushy job at an investment firm that is run by Magicians. This means, he takes a meaningless job, doing no work, taking high pay and losing himself in the “multifarious meaningless entertainments and distractions with which the real world supplied Quentin. Video games; Internet porn; people talking on their cell phones in bodegas about their stepmothers’ medical conditions; weightless supermarket plastic bags snagged in leafless trees…It was all he had left, and it would have to be enough” (395).
Lev Grossman is a talented writer. His prose is beautiful and the imagery he creates is captivating.
Consider this description of Quentin trying to avoid thinking about his problems: “His mind was an icy pond constantly in danger of thawing. He trod on it only lightly-its surface was perilously slick and who knew how thin. To break through would mean immersion in what was below: cold, dark anaerobic water and angry, toothy fish. The fish were memories. He wanted to put them away somewhere and forget where he’d put them, but he couldn’t.” (373)
Or Grossman describing the power of words: “He’d started that little speech speaking normally and he ended it shouting. In a way fighting like this was just like using magic. You said the words, and they altered the universe. By merely speaking you could create damage and pain, cause tears to fall, drive people away, make yourself feel better, make yourself feel worse.” (334)
The book ends a bit unexpectedly with his friends reappearing and inviting him to return to Fillory. An invitation he accepts.
This was a hard book to read. I don’t want to say it was good, and it definitely doesn’t pass the Philippians 4.8-9 test. I felt a bit like I was reading a serialization of Breaking Bad. Reading this book, while engaging, was depressing. The main theme of this book was existence and meaning. Quentin is depressed because he cannot find any purpose to his life. When he spends a holiday with staying with his girlfriend Alice’s parents we see that this is a problem haunting everyone. Alice’s father spends his time redesigning their home. Currently, it is modeled after a Roman villa. Quentin compliments the authenticity of the home and Alice’s father responds, “‘It took me three years to put it together,’ he said. ‘Three years. And you know what? I’m already sick of it after two months. I can’t eat the food, there are skid marks on my toga, and I have plantar fasciitis from walking around on these floors. What is the point of my life?’ He looked at Quentin furiously, as if he actually expected an answer, as if Quentin were concealing it from him. ‘Would someone tell me that, please? Because I have no idea! None!'” (203)
This is the true quest of the Magicians: the search for meaning. It is what propelled Quentin to pursue Brakebills. Time and time again, Quentin does something believing that it is now he will find meaning. While his friends debate entering Fillory we experience Quentin’s internal dialogue, which once again, circles around meaning. “Quentin lay back on the rug and stared up at the ceiling. He needed sleep, but this was no time for sleep…He tried to focus on Fillory, to make the good feelings come back. This would change everything. Yes, his universe had just expanded times a million, but Fillory was the key to it all. That creeping infectious sense of futility that had been incubating in his brain even since before graduation had met its magic bullet. Alice didn’t see it yet, but she would. This was what they’d been waiting for. This is what her parents had never found…But this, this was everything. Now the present had a purpose, and the future had a purpose, and even the past, their whole lives, retroactively, had meaning. Now they knew what it was for.” (263)
But, Quentin never found meaning and ended up accepting that fact.
I enjoyed this book because it effectively showed us what the world looks like when you believe that there is no purpose to existence. Honesty is missing in too often. Years ago I met an atheist who was depressed. I saw their and watched his wife try to cheer him up and he literally responded, “I just can’t bring myself to care. There’s no point to all this anyway.”
Another thing missing in this book is faith. Midway through the book, a dinner part is thrown. Richard comes and we learn that Richard is “in a quiet way, an observant Christian.” (232) But this is not true. Richard is a classical Deist. As the dinner moves forward, Richard begins to speak about faith. ” ‘Magic,’ Richard announced slowly, flushed, ‘is the tools. Of the Maker…There’s no other way of looking at it. We are dealing with a scenario where there is a Person who built the house, and then He left.” (233) That is the text book definition of Deism. But, whatever. Richard’s choice to bring up the existence of a deity gives Eliot, the homosexual of the group, the chance to launch into an angry tirade about God, especially judgment and morality. Eliot concludes, “No one gets punished for anything. We do whatever we want, and that’s all we do, and nobody stops us and nobody cares.” (235)
Unfortunately, Eliot is wrong. You may do whatever you want but there are consequences and even punishments. Later that evening, Eliot, Quentin and Janet engage in a menage a toi and as a result, Quentin ends up losing Alice, the only person who has ever made him happy. Actions have consequences and life does indeed have meaning.
Alas, iIf there is no God and thus, no purpose to existence then people are left with two options: accepting that there is no meaning and lose all hope or make their own meaning. This book shows Quentin trying to make meaning where there is none but realizes this is futile and then loses all hope as he accepts that there is no meaning and he cannot make meaning. It is clear that religion is not even an option for finding meaning and fulfillment and even joy for the characters.
Ultimately, I’d recommend this book to a discerning reader. The overall depravity of the characters is not too insulting because it isn’t graphic. The lack of graphic description makes some of the events all the more shocking. If you are tired of traditional fantasy, this is probably one of the most innovative plot lines I’ve come across in a long time. If you appreciate a well written story with a tight plot, this is a good book to read. But if you want something that, when finished, will leave you with a happy feeling–this is definitely not the book for you. This book is many things, but hopeful isn’t one.