Lev Grossman’s ‘The Magicians’

by John on August 11, 2009

A review of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians: A Portrait of the Artist as a Recovering Narniac:

Serious Readers of Harry Potter need to read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. Grossman’s Magicians, in brief, is what the Potter Saga might have been if Rowling had let her Nabakov fancy collide and collude with her Narnian imagination.

Is the collision of the modern novel and high fantasy in The Magicians a pretty thing? Not always. In fact, frequently it’s jarring, even disturbing. But both the engagement in another world (as well as a world within our world — The Magicians embraces Hogwarts and Narnia) and the shock of realism in this setting and from the too real failings of adult postmoderns are fluidly combined in Grossman’s third novel.

I cannot say you’ll enjoy all or even most of the book if you love Harry Potter; but your appreciation and understanding of the postmodern fantasy novel, of which Rowling’s work is one example and only the most successful, will be extended remarkably by your time at Brakebills and in Fillory. The Magicians is largely about the experience of reading fantasy, and its rewards and dangers for self-understanding and relationship to the world. Grossman offers front and back, highs and lows, and serious readers will recognize their reflection as well as the shades of Lewis, Rowling, and White, not to mention Salinger, Roth, and Pynchon.

My notes in no particular order (well, numeric order):

1. Grossman known in Harry Potter fandom chiefly through two articles he wrote for Time magazine in his position there as Book Critic. Neither suggested to this reader that he understood Rowling very well or fantasy literature in general.

a. ‘Rowling: Hogwarts and All’ asserted on the basis of a two hour interview that Ms. Rowling felt she was not a fantasy writer in intention and that she was not an admirer of Lewis or Tolkien. Grossman went so far as to write that in Rowling’s sub-creation Lewis would be a Death Eater.

b. ‘Who Dies? God.’ In the obligatory pre-Deathly Hallows piece for Time, Grossman editorialized that the only character in Rowling’s work that would die in the finale was God, the religious feature and quality of fantasy literature that he thought was notably lacking in the Hogwarts Saga.

c. Given this perspective and orientation – namely, a seeming hostility towards or ignorance about the Christian forms and spiritual depth of the Romantic fantasy tradition in English letters – my expectations for The Magicians, Grossman’s third novel and first fore into the fantasy genre, were low, to say the least.

2. Reading The Magicians after meeting the author at a Harry Potter fan conference in Boston was a pleasant surprise. Grossman has written a startling, even jarring work about the experience of reading and writing fantasy fiction in the wake of the Inkling tradition and the Hogwarts adventures.

a. I sat on an ‘Author’s Event’ panel at Leaky Con 2009 (22 May) with four other writers and Potter pundits, to include Mr. Grossman. He was friendly, open, and self-effacing, and, to the point, his comments about his experiences while writing The Magicians reflected no little grasp of what the genre was about (especially his evident wonder post-inspiration).

b. I read, consequently, the sample chapter from The Magicians that Grossman’s publisher (Viking/Penguin) had given every Leaky Con registrant in a charming booklet. This taste was more than engaging so I was delighted when I met the author again at the Book Expo America event in NYC the next week and was able to get an advance proof of the book. The whole is as good as the sample part, and, in many chapters, much better.

c. Grossman seems to be after big game in The Magicians, namely, the blending of two genres – the modern novel and fantasy sub-creation – which as commonly understood cannot be joined without defeating the aims of each. He has written a novel that, beyond the adventures of a Stephen Daedalus at a Hogwarts Graduate School in the US, explores the experience of reading fantasy literature and the right and wrong responses to this engagement as a thinking person. Before evaluating if the blending of two genres in The Magicians is an alchemical victory or hermaphroditic monster, it bears noting that Grossman understands both fantasy and the modern novel profoundly and sympathetically.

3. Mr. Grossman has written on his weblog that he is an atheist, which theological position does not foster hopes that he will have grasped the heart and goals of the fantasy tradition within English literature. All of that tradition’s historic ‘Greats,’ after all, from Coleridge through the Inklings, were devotional Christians whose profound and relatively esoteric faith informed their work and give the genre its distinctive features and flavors. Whatever Grossman’s religious confession, however, he ‘gets’ fantasy and has clearly read broadly and at depth on both banks of the Fantasy stream in English lit. The Magicians, thankfully, is not a fictional God is Not Great written by Christopher Hitchens just out of Erewhon.

a. The Magicians was just published today so my hands have been tied as a reviewer even more than they might be in terms of discussing the book’s substance without revealing too much of its content. Describing its surface before critiquing it, though, I can say it has four parts:

i. The first, more than half of the book, is the Hogwarts Express: Quentin Coldwater’s course of study at Brakebill’s magical college in upstate NY

ii. The second, mercifully short, is Coldwater’s dissipating post-graduate experiences as a young wizard with plenty of cash in NYC – and the discovery of a means to Fillory, the Narnia “through the wardrobe” magical-land equivalent of The Magicians

iii. The third is the adventure of five Brakebill’s graduates in Fillory and the Neitherlands (Narnia and Wood Between Worlds stand-ins) to find the lost Chatwin (Pevensie) child

iv. The fourth is Coldwater’s recovery from this adventure and his coming to terms with his magical powers, responsibilities as a man, and relationship to Fillory, the fantasy of his youth and real world the “touch of a button” away.

v. The story arc is real world prepster ennui to the Harvard of Magical Colleges to Studio 54 unreal world to Narnia fantasy land as experienced by an older Holden Caulfield and friends (or a younger Alexander Portnoy?) to real world denouement.

b. The heart of fantasy that Grossman delivers is the transparency of the world and magic being only the revelation of the essential inside that is bigger than the conventional outside. The few times he alludes to the source of the magic in the books, the in-between world (Neitherlands) he constructs as a pointer to Lewis’ ‘Wood Between the Worlds,’ and his explanation of the game magicians play (welters) as a reflection of “some distant, barely legible rumor of the Neitherlands that had filtered down to Earth” all speak to the philosophical and cosmological underpinnings of English fantasy, i.e., Cambridge Platonism.

c. We also get the tropes and touches that signal we’re experiencing in our exterior world what is really the interior “kingdom;” The Magicians is heavy with light images, even a lead character (appropriately named Alice, as a hat tip to Dodgson and notice of her place in the novel as a fantasy standard) whose magic and self-definition is light. We have character triptychs a la Harry, Ron, and Hermione albeit as seen in a Nabakov mirror, and we have sacrificial love that saves the heroes in the end from evil and death.

d. Grossman swings for the fences in presenting two types of fantasy in one book, the world just out of sight a la Hogwarts and the fantasy world which characters enter only through a portal taking them out of our world a la Narnia. The story works, however, because Grossman respects both story types and uses the conventions of each to confront the reader with the workings and experience of them all.

e. The magicians of the story, you see, have all read the Harry Potter novels, they know Narnia inside and out, barely disguised as it is as Fillory for copyright issues. The references and borrowings from Rowling in Brakebills (the magic college of The Magicians), from White’s Once and Future King in the characters’ experiences as animals, and from Lewis’ Narniad in the Fillory adventure of the third book are extensive and so deftly done that they are only delightful rather than distracting. Grossman’s references to Blake, Shelley, Stoker, even to Superman all give the work a density and depth that give The Magicians its startling substance.

4. If Mr. Grossman understands fantasy novels and tradition, though, this book is still more a modern novel than a trip through the Looking Glass. The Magicians, because the characters are with few exceptions hard to love or identify with, is a grittily realistic novel however fantastic the setting.

a. Which is the great contrast with Hogwarts. There is nothing Gothic or archetypal about Brakebills beyond its old world affectations. It is Harvard for magicians, a ruthlessly competitive place for an elite set of self-important and, for the most part, shamelessly socially-retarded geeks who have always been the most intelligent person in the room. Grossman as a graduate of Harvard and Yale draws on his experiences to give a vivid allegory via his magical college of what life is like in Ivy League crucible of secular mages and thaumaturgs.

b. The allegory of magic standing in for intellect works because Quentin Coldwater’s mental universe is so thoroughly modern. This hero’s story coming-of-age drama is his search for meaning in a world largely without beauty or sense. The narrative line in Book 1 observes the school boy novel conventions of sorting, games, and conflicts with fellow students and with teachers but only nominally. The gut of this book and the other three are Quentin’s self-reflections, confusion, ennui, feelings of disorientation and insecurity, and thoughts about sex.

c. Three quick story points to highlight the modernity of The Magicians: I leave these as place-holders for future discussion at BrakebillsProfessor.com…

i. Dead Professor/Liquor Cabinet Wardrobe: this isn’t your daddy’s Narnia.

ii. The difficulty of magic: There is real artistry and techne in making magic.

iii. The confrontation with Christianity and problems with ‘meaning’ in Fillory

d. The Modern Novel is largely an adventure in artistic innovation per Pound’s demand and an exploration of our mental worlds in the age after the death of shared faith in God and progress. Grossman’s Magicians most modern quality is in renovating the introspective realism of, say, Philip Roth, by placing it within a fantasy Bildungsroman, or, inversely, giving us a look at Hogwarts and Narnia, if Neville Longbottom and Eustace Scrubb were the heroes – and they had the perspective and intelligence of an older Holden Caulfield.

e. Does this innovative combination work? Yes and no, mostly ‘yes.’ How doesn’t it work?

5. The Modern Novel and Fantasy literary genre share an end – heightened consciousness in the reader – but they have radically different means to this goal, means that are incompatible.

a. Fantasy submerges a reader in world where his or her ego consciousness or disbelieving persona is suspended for a subliminal experience of what Coleridge called “primary imagination,” the logos reality of mind beneath, behind, and within the exterior stuff of matter and energy. This is a world in which truth, beauty, and goodness win out in the end, even in, perhaps especially in eucatastrophe, because they are the fabric underlying reality. Magic is the contact with and appearance of this cosmic logos that stirs the noetic and neptic faculty of the reader that is continuous with if not identical to it.

b. The realism of the Modern Novel does not suspend the ego. In contrast, the narrative focuses on the surface persona with fascination, which spotlight fosters the reader’s self awareness and that capacity or self that is able to see our thoughts in an interior rear view mirror and reflect or judge them. The more jarring the events of the story and the greater the interior or psychological struggle of the protagonist is a measure of how much more aware the reader may be consequent to the experience of his or her stimulus-response collection – and the capacity to choose different responses in transcending the ego self’s habits. As often as not, this involves experiencing despair, doubt, and confusion to unhook from false certainties.

c. The Magicians in placing a thoroughly modern novel in the fantasy story setting, then, is necessarily a failure as a fantasy insomuch as it succeeds as a modern piece. School boy buggery, post graduate urban and urbane dissipation in sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, even drunken infidelity and the agonies of cuckoldry work in a realist, modern novel; in the fantasy genre, however, they bring us back to surface consciousness with the bends and destroy the esemplastic effect of suspended disbelief. These jarring, adult moments in The Magicians will disappoint readers looking for a second Hogwarts or Narnia, maybe even anger them.

6. Which disturbance or cognitive dissonance, I have to think, is Grossman’s aim qua modernist. The Magicians, unless I’m much mistaken, is largely about freeing fantasy from its religious foundations and the attachments of its readers to a devotional, sentimental faith.

a. Hence the darkness of ‘Fillory,’ Grossman’s Narnia. Not to spoil the ending or the revelations there, but the Aslan figure there is much more a Fisher King than Christ figure whom the Magicians foolishly despise and resist consequent to their disappointment that he is not other-worldly or omnipotent.

b. The ‘Bad Guy’ of the piece, ‘The Beast,’ is a Narniac much like Quentin Coldwater, in several ways his doppelganger, who wants to escape the world of meaninglessness for the imaginary, opiate life in a Christian fantasy land. He becomes the monster and close to omnipotent and all-devouring, even the straw-God of the piece, in a Dawkinesque caricature of the religious ‘believer’ unable to grow up.

c. Sacrificial love and light, however, save the day in conformity to fantasy formula (and in a story echo, it seemed of the X-Men’s Jean Grey and Scott Summers). And Quentin transcends the world by capturing the real Narnian Christ figure and White’s Questing Beast, now Wounded King. After his time with the Centaurs in the Hospital Wing and the denouement revelations of what was really happening in his Fillory adventure, he returns to the ‘real world’ as a Pinocchio, magically wooden, a Narniac in recovery, living a life sans magic. The story’s ending, though, suggests Quenton discovers and reclaims the magic within him post-religious belief.

7. There is a Christian magician in the book and Grossman notes, appropriate to the mage/maven allegory, that this kind of faith was rare among magicians. He is older, more mature, relatively stiff compared to the story heroes, and, if an establishment and authority straw man, he is also the only magical adult in the book.

a. Grossman, to his credit, has his other characters confront and reject Christian faith in such a way that their sophomoric atheism has all the appeal of Trelawney’s occult powers. The believer doesn’t have the needs and doesn’t make the mistakes in Fillory that the faithless and shattered figures do.

b. That Quentin succeeds in escaping Fillory as a Pinocchio after capturing the White Stag and recovers sufficiently by story’s finish to accept an invitation for another magical adventure -suggests that Grossman is saying that fantasy stripped of its religious elements can be liberating and edifying to the intellectual who searches for meaning.

8. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is an important work, I think, as much for the challenge it offers to readers who may not care for it, as much as for the experience it delivers.

a. Fantasy devotees (Twi-Hards, Harry Hallowers), devotional Christians, as well as academic postmoderns who dismiss or feel only disdain for anyone believing there is an anagogical element in reading will find Grossman’s modern/fantasy mélange with its weight on the modern scale hard to take. The friction of the genres may only annoy them.

b. Which would be a shame. Grossman is a subversive symbolist a la Rowling, Charles Williams, and George MacDonald, albeit without their faith. I suspect that Ms. Rowling wishes she could have written The Magicians and that her next work will shift from fantasy to modern novel. We can only hope that her Nabakov novel is as challenging an experience as Grossman’s time in Narnia.

The distinction that illumines the difference between what Mr. Grossman is doing in The Magicians and what Lewis, Rowling, and the Symbolist Inklings are after is that between the psychic and spiritual realms. It was an inability to understand this distinction and how it appears in English literature (invocational magic is the ‘calling down’ of psychic entities a la Dr. Faustus, incantational magic is the ‘harmonizing’ or ‘singing along with’ a transcendent, spiritual, and creative reality that is speech or song, a la Aslan and the quasi-sentient wand cores) which caused the whole magic controversy over Harry as the “gateway to the occult.” Those Christians who object to Rowling’s magic are, frankly, well-meaning empiricists, who are more disciples of David Hume than to the Christ of tradition, I’m afraid.

They ellide the psychic and the spiritual in the way that all 20th century people do as a reflex consequent to our accepting the scientistic division of knowledge into ‘objective,’ i.e., able to be measured as quantities of matter or energy, and ‘subjective,’ essentially everything not objective — the psychological, the spiritual, and the intersection or boundary meeting place of the psychological and spiritual in the human person, the religious. Because ‘subjective’ knowledge is by definition ‘unsure’ in nominalist epistemology (and, alas, we are all nominalists and materialists qua postmoderns), the distinctions between soul, heart, and spirit in the subjective sphere that are the gut of every revealed tradition and consequent civilization’s music, architecture, and art, to include literature is lost. The Romantic fantasy tradition is born as a saving retreat action by Coleridge and company in the face of Hume’s victory in the Public Square to preserve a means to religious experience — the meeting of individual soul and spiritual reality through story transparency or symbol — in the imagination.

Rowling said in her magazine with a Spanish magazine that “the key” to her books she “waited 17 years to write” was the exchange between DDore and Harry at his Neitherland ‘King’s Cross.’ When DDore answers Harry’s empiricist question, “Is this real or in my head?” with “Of course this is happening inside your head, Harry, but why would you think it isn’t real?” we are given in crystalized form the argument of fantasy against the exclusive surety or greater reality of objective knowledge and ‘things.’ Harry as story symbol is Trelawney’s “inner eye,” the eye of the heart, hence his seeing the eye in the mirror fragment where his ‘I’ should be and his birthright to the Invisibility Cloak, under which he becomes an all-seeing eye/I that cannot be seen. Rowling is a ‘subversive’ Symbolist as oposed to a ‘conservative’ like Lewis and Tolkien but she writes in the same literary tradition.

Reading The Magicians in light of the neglected distinction between psychic and spiritual (and their religious boundary) clarifies what it is, namely, a psychological novel qua American modern piece that explores the religious or self-transcending experience of reading fantasy literature. For a writer like Grossman that is skeptical about anything spiritual or religious (elliding and reducing those categories of experience with the psychological a la Freud, Jung, others), the fantasy experience is problematic because it may be the only place Grossman gives his spiritual longings any play. It either has to be explained by reductive dissection to be just psychological (Oedipal delusion and distraction, etc.) or embraced as evidence that there is something other, creative, and magical in the world which human beings are designed to experience (Coleridge’s literary place holder for the heart in the Empiricist Empire).

I think The Magicians is an important work because at story’s end Quentin accepts the reality of Fillory, the Neitherlands, and Magic and chooses to fly, having been freed of his childish and purely psychological longing for a ‘happy place’ of retreat from the world by his cathartic adventure in the real beneath, behind, and within ‘stuff’ that is not delusional or ‘just subjective.’ The Magicians isn’t ‘Harry Potter for Grown-Ups;’ if anything, it is an edifying transition piece for skeptics that raises the ceiling of the psychological so it once again touches the spiritual. Which bridge is an entry to Fantasy proper so ‘adults’ (Lewis’ dwarves, I’m afraid, our ‘skeptics’) can understand Harry Potter as adults rather than experience the Hogwarts Saga only as children.

Do check out the interview with Lev Grossman on the Amazon page for The Magicians; his comments on the book’s being a fantasy story without the grand villain and the ascendancy of fantasy-science fiction at last from the valley to the summit of public attention are well worth your while — as is The Magicians, which I recommend with enthusiasm.

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