Spell of ‘The Magicians’ ultimately proves unsustainable

Ellie Gold

“The Magicians”
Lev Grossman
402 pages

Some really interesting things happen when literary critics or book reviewers (who aren’t already authors) try their hands at writing novels. You can get incredibly complex, intelligent works of art like Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose,” T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” or Scarlett Thomas’s “The End of Mr. Y,” or you can get Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians.”

Published August of 2009, “The Magicians” tells the story of Quentin Coldwater, an extremely bright and unhappy high school senior preparing to go off to college: specifically, Princeton. Quentin is still secretly obsessed with Fillory, the Narnia-replica fantasy series from his youth: an obsession that allows for his suspension of disbelief when he is invited to test into Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, a magic school in upstate New York. (Yes, I just said that.) He spends the next five years learning magic at this college (including: spoiler alert!: a stint as a goose obviously evocative of Wart’s transformation in White’s “The Sword in the Stone”) among a collection of characters straight out of a bucket of high school stereotypes: there’s a punk, a hot chick, a weird girl and Quentin himself, who is an introspective yet angry young man who (spoiler alert again!) gets the girl.

While the first half of the book is basically the hipster Harry Potter, the second half is more C.S. Lewis than J.K. Rowling. The Brakebills graduates (or Quentin’s friends, anyway) find out that not only is Fillory real (shocker!) but that one of their classmates has actually found a way to get there. Each of them head to this magical world for a different reason; Quentin is searching for the happiness he feels has been denied him his entire life and events devolve from there.

C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, T.H. White: Nearly every fantasy children’s author of the past century has a reference in this novel, and yet their purpose seems to be to validate Grossman’s novel, rather than elaborating it. Every time Fillory comes up, either in conversation or in Quentin’s thoughts, I thought, “Why can’t he just call it Narnia already?!”   The stopping point between our world and “Fillory,” for example, won’t call to mind any reference points in readers only familiar with the more famous Narnia books, but to any reader of “The Magician’s Nephew,” it’s an obvious symmetry. Frankly, I’m surprised C.S. Lewis’s estate didn’t take issue with all the similarities, but admittedly, I’m not that well versed with publishing and copyright law. There are allusions to Rowling’s world as well: both a joke about Quidditch and a reference to Hermione’s teeth: but the Harry Potter comparisons are more dialogic or structural than the Narnia ones or the references to White’s Arthuriana.

As a novel, “The Magicians” is aggressively self-aware: there are a lot of remarks about “if this were a novel like the Fillory books”: and Quentin’s affected ironic detachment gets real annoying, real fast. It’s there from the beginning: Quentin thinks to himself, three pages in, that his “GPA is a number higher than most people even realize it is possible for a GPA to be.” Now, I like books about hyper-intelligent teenagers as much as the next girl, but when a character thinks that is a reason why he should be happy, it grates a little.

In an interview with Ben Beitler of the Village Voice, Lev Grossman displays his awareness of the problems of his novel, to an extent. He calls many of the allusions and analogues in “The Magicians” an “anxiety of influence play” on the moves made by the authors of classic children’s fantasy. It definitely made me a more sympathetic reader, but I don’t actually believe that authors should be allowed to explain their novels: if it can’t be said in the confines of the novel’s pages, then the novel didn’t succeed in conveying its message. “The Magicians” is one of those books that you enjoy while you are reading it, but as soon as you put it down, you are left with a vague feeling of disquiet over how you’ve just spent the last few hours. I think, to some extent, that Grossman’s novel does not succeed as an “anxiety of influence play”: there is too much influence, too much anxiety, for the novel to develop its own voice, and since it cannot, it leaves without having made an imprint.