The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Amazon Link for better plot summary and reviews:
http://www.amazon.com/Magicians-Novel-Lev-Grossman/dp/0670020559.



Basic rundown of the plot:
Quentin, a high school student, is swept into a hidden world and attends a school for magic (it is for five years and the students are, for the most part, adults). He is delighted to be there because he finds out that magic is real, just like he always hoped when he read books about the "imaginary" Fillory world (and the Chatwin children who have adventures there). After graduation, he and his friends (I guess you would call them friends) end up in Fillory where they face off against evil. Tragedy and victory are the outcomes.

Vague? Yes...intentionally so. And, as I will state again, this is NOT a children's novel. It is very adult and explicit.

I have been trying to decide what to write about this novel for a couple of days. I can't decide if Grossman is doing something important in this book or if he is being clever and unintentionally doing something important. Yes, it does interact with Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia (references to both are in the novel, with two--that I remember, anyway--specifically mentioning incidents in Harry Potter). Some say that this is the adult version of Harry Potter. I wonder if this is what Harry Potter would have looked like had it been written by Americans. So, I am going to be optimistic here and give you my impression of the book as something interacting with popular children's fantasy on an interesting (and important, perhaps) level.

Now, going in: this is a very adult and explicit novel. The school of magic in this book is for college-aged students and, therefore, college-type language/activities/incidents take place. So, if you are easily offended or don't want to read about a lurid version of Rowling...well, don't read this book. So, even though it is interacting with children's literature, it is important to note that this is not a children's book.

That being said, the fact that we have characters functioning as adult versions of the Harry Potter characters, living in a school of magic for part of the novel and then leaving after graduation to engage in more useless laziness and lurid activity spawned from boredom, speaks to something important about this very American book. (Note: will probably have lots of people slam me for the following comments, but this is my blog...so, as I have said before, deal with it.) I think American writers (just in general and in what is mass-produced...certainly not everyone) are good at plot and immediate gratification on a sensual level. As my friend Kelly said as we were discussing this book, it is why we place such emphasis on special effects. The movie Avatar was terrible if you just consider the story line. Same crap Cameron always does. We can't slow ourselves down long enough to think about our own lives much less the lives of a character in a book or a movie. If they aren't constantly moving or shooting or something "action-based," then most Americans complain. It takes effort to think and analyze and feel...and why do that in a world where we can instantaneously get most things that we want? Hmmm...and magic can, once you learn it, give you exactly that. Food for thought.

I read through some complaints about the book on Amazon (very divided by the way...about half love it and half hate it). Some of the complaints mentioned that the book was just boring or that the reviewer hated the protagonist and couldn't feel anything for him (Quentin is the main character). I don't agree that the book is boring. There is a plot, but the plot is overridden by the idea that the characters--especially Quentin--are so jaded and living in a world that is unimpressive...even though they are going to a school of magic.

People also don't like the book because Quentin isn't a sympathetic character: he barely works, his relationships are distant at best for most of the novel (and perhaps even at the end), he engages in immoral behavior and feels little remorse at times...and even when he does, he is too immature to move forward as an adult. All true. He is unsympathetic. But I think that is the point. Here is an American Harry Potter: jaded, unimpressed, and not moved to do much because there isn't a need. There was one point, toward the end, where I thought that he was changing, but by the very end of the book...eh...not so much.

As to how this interacts with children's literature in general:
A very peculiar thing happens as you read. In the beginning, at least, you imagine the characters to be much younger than they really are (at least I did, anyway). This is unsettling because of what these characters actually do and say. It is like a perversion of the youthful hero and heroine in classic children's literature.

As I said, I am still trying to figure this one out, but I will try to do so through other responses...

Famous authors and publications have reviewed this novel. Here are a few of their comments and my response to those comments:

From George R. R. Martin (A Game of Thrones author): "The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea."
My response: Um, George, I love your books and all, but what the heck were you smoking when you wrote this? No. This is a book that, I think, brutally commentates on Americans and American society, but in no way does that make it a better novel. It makes it an interesting and sad commentary, useful for comparison and critical thought, but is not a classic in the way Harry Potter is a classic.


From The New Yorker: "[The Magicians is] an unexpectedly moving coming-of-age story."
My response: It may be a uniquely American "coming-of-age story" that speaks to our society and how we interact with one another...but "moving" it isn't...and I hope that what it captures is ephemeral.

From The Washington Post: "The Magicians is a great fairy tale, written for grown-ups but appealing to our most basic desires for stories to bring about some re-enchantment with the world, where monsters lurk but where a young man with a little magic may prevail."
My response: What the hell were you reading? Quentin does NOT prevail. The Hermione equivalent saves the day...even though it kills her. Quentin, as he watches her die, wants to go to sleep. Give me a break. Also, it may begin with the intent to give us some kind of nostalgic "re-enchantment"...but that quickly fades. Quentin realizes the difference between his child's imagination and reality, yet the worst part is that he can't carry any of the good from his childish encounter with the fairy tale into his adult life. It also bothers me that we should even think about being "re-enchanted" with something about childhood through this novel. This novel isn't mean to "enchant"...or, at least, I hope it isn't.

So, yes, I am going to go out on a limb here and say that this book is important. Lots of critical work waits to be done using this book and Rowling's work (and Lewis and Tolkien, etc.). But--and this is a big "BUT"--it is not positive. It is not a book that has redemption. It is not a book that has a moral. It is a book with an anti-hero (another common complaint on Amazon)...but these are things that reign in American cinema and television. Hey--I watch Weeds and love it...definitely anti-heroes with no morals in that series. But, when you combine this with children's literature and all that comes with that (the emotion, the symbolism, etc), well, something very surreal happens...and not surreal in a good way.

Do I like the book? Yes and no. I am easily drawn into books that do what this one did: it explores a culture in a slow and methodical way (probably why some didn't like it). It isn't necessarily exciting until the end (and, because it does get exciting, it loses something in the process). But the book is ephemeral...and important because it is so. It isn't, in my meager opinion, a classic (as many reviewers have suggested). But it comments on the classics in a very important way (even if the author didn't intend it...but I think he did).

So, if you are a literature geek like me and love the children's literature, you should at least thumb through it. I had been debating about it for over a year. But I found it marked down to $3.49 at Books-a-Million and thought that I could risk the investment. It certainly won't be for everyone and it won't leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. But, read through a few pages and see what you think. After all, in the end, reading is a personal experience and it doesn't really matter what I think. :)

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