Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Real magicalism

I just read Lev Grossman's (variously recommended) The Magicians this past week. I have a hard time summarizing it (as you will see from the rambling nature of this post): the best I can get is that it's a send-up of fantasy novels as we knew and grew up with them. It's not a strict satire, though--there are moments where Grossman pays homage to the genre. And his main character, Quentin Coldwater, does grow up over the course of a magical journey, though not as neatly as one might hope. Because The Magicians is not magic or reality or magical realism but something I'll call real magicalism. (I don't read enough sci-fi/fantasy to definitively state that it's unique, but I can't think of another book that would fall into this category.) It examines real (and often real-ly unlikeable) characters who happen to have magical powers. Like most real people, they think magic is a storybook thing, and they believe it will transform them utterly and leave them fulfilled like storybook heroes. But! For real people life doesn't work out that way, as a quick look at the plot of The Magicians will tell you.

In some way the book is a pastiche of other magical and coming-of-age narratives. It starts out with Quentin's mysterious Narnia-esque escape from the real world of Brooklyn. He arrives at the Hogwartsian magic college Brakebills, and proceeds to live a Harry Potter existence...sort of. One doubts that Hogwarts would send its students, in the form of geese, to hole up in monkish cells in Antarctica to hone their craft; and though the magical professors are not as evil as, say, Snape, their casual indifference is in some ways more disturbing. A professor asks Alice, a classmate of Quentin's, to perform a magic trick in their first class. When she makes a glass animal come alive, he crushes it. Class dismissed.

And, unlike the Pevensies or Harry Potter, Quentin et al. graduate from school and enter the Real World, in the form of a dissolute, magic-supported Bohemian existence in downtown Manhattan. But--surprise!--this doesn't fulfill them either. So when they get a chance to go on a magical quest, they leap in... I won't go into the details--to do so would spoil the plot--but suffice to say that the last portion of the book uncovers many of the problems that underlie children's magical stories. What's so great about humans anyway, that they can come in and take over a world? And what's the author's stake in all this? It may not be anything grandiose. And it may actually create the most evil of all.

What's most striking to me, though (and what I suspect, but cannot confirm, is the reason recommendations are making the rounds), is how magic serves so bitingly yet affectingly as a metaphor for intelligence. Brakebills, the heart of so much of the story, is the epitome of college, or at least the small college(s) most, if not all, of this blog's readers attend(ed). Grossman describes how Brakebills is where Quentin and his classmates must for the first time meet others who are just as competitive and academically driven as they are. They nurse jealousies; they form rivalries; but above all, they embody a community. Because of their magical powers, they believe in some sense that they're better than everyone else. They make friends, do work, and contemplate major life decisions all with the understanding that their magical powers somehow set them apart. But, suddenly (about halfway through the book), they graduate. And out in the real world no one knows that they're magical, and no one cares that they're superior.(And are they really superior anyway? Nope. Surprise, surprise.)

You may all be better people than I, but I know I've felt like I'm pretty smart because of where I went to college. Granted, once I got there, I knew for sure that I wasn't the smartest. But I found there's still some enticing sense of elitism that is fostered by, especially, going to such a small school. Brakebills, with its 20-student class years, is comically tiny. But it speaks to larger truths about college. This book is a perfect post-graduation read because it deals with what happens after you've gotten your diploma, which marks, I suppose, the conclusion of the main quest of your youth. And then life's not all happily ever after. You may live off borrowed money, host dinner parties, engage in ridiculous excess just because you can. But in the end, that's not enough for even a fictional character, and it's certainly not enough for you. What are you going to do with your life, anyway? What if your magic didn't set you up for success as well as you thought it would?

Grossman declines to fully answer these questions, of course: probably because there isn't a full answer. I know I sure don't have one. But as I try to figure out what I want to do with my future, The Magicians feels all too realistic.

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