Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reading Lev Grossman's "The Magicians"

Lev Grossman's The Magicians (Plume 2010) is a Bildungsroman; and, although parallels have been drawn between J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and C.S. Lewis' Narnia, the comparisons are not apt. These fantasy novels are not "coming of age novels" in the sense or meaning contained within the definition of Bildungsroman or in the same way that Grossman's novel is. Instead, Grossman's use of and reference to them--both internally, within the text, and externally, through paralleling plots--reveal an emerging sub-genre of literary fiction that relies on tropes and memes of genre fiction--science fiction, fantasy, comics, and RPGS-- as a reference to or touchstone for his protagonist's life experiences. Through references to these tropes or memes, Grossman, like Junot Díaz, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, interacts, on one hand, with a genre that basically defines "virtual" through a rich and vertiginous simulacra and, on the other, the protagonist's "real" life experiences. These genre-specific allusions serve as a short-hand to their audience--people raised at the same time on the same fare--but transcend those genres in which they define their "coming of age." This melange results in a richer, more complete and complex, text that transcends its putative genre, grounds both the reader and the text in the here and now, and, hopefully, broadens the novel's readership.

This is not to say, of course, that The Magicians cannot be read as fantasy; it can be. Awe-inducing set pieces are sprinkled throughout the text and it is easy for the reader to suspend his/her disbelief and accept the work as fantasy. But that would be too easy. From the very beginning, the protagonist Quentin, an unhappy teenager, is subverting the reader's expeditions by showing that magic, although powerful, does not solve his very human problems.There is a constant call home to the reality of the everyday--There is nowhere like home.

As the novel begins, Quentin is in high school in Brooklyn. He is intelligent, preparing for college, but he is not happy.

Quentin knew he wasn't happy. Why not? He had painstakingly assembled all the ingredients of happiness. He had performed all the necessary rituals, spoken the words, lit the candles, made the sacrifices. (p.65)

To deal with his unhappiness, Quentin repeatedly reads Christopher Plover's Fillory and Further, a series of five novels published in England in the 1930s. The books provide him with an escape from his quotidian existence as well as a location and container for his imagination. As he is walking with his two friends, James and Julia, to their Princeton interview, Quentin states that the cold of the day did not bother him because: He was in Fillory. (p.6) This reference to the Fillory novel is meant to be an allusion to C. S. Lewis' Narnia novels, as well as an indication of Quentin's state of mind and a self-referencing device. It is also a tip-off to the beginning of a portal novel, a rhetorical device used in fantasy literature and a clear example of the recursive or self-reflecting nature of the novel.

Additionally, it signals another significant theme: books, writing and reading. Through the internal construction of faux books, in this case, fantasy books, Grossman comments on books and reading. The reference, along with the map at the beginning of the novel, alerts us to the fact that The Magicians, like the Narnia series, is also a  portal novel. As Farah Mendlesohn states in Rhetorics of Fantasy (Wesleyan University Press 2008), “the portal fantasy is about entry, transition and exploration (p.2). Portal novels and the Bildungsroman are compatible rhetorical devices and they are popular in children fantasies such as NarniaThe Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, and Through the Looking Glass. Some critics even argue that Tolkien's The Lord of the Ring is a portal novel: Frodo and his friends leave the Eden-like shire and enter the chaotic world of Sauron and Saruman. So from the outset of the novel the reader is reminded of the pivotal portal novels of his/her childhood and on a deeper level reminds us that novels are portals as well.

The novel's impetus--off to college--quickly changes with Quentin's and his friends' discovery of a dead man, the interviewer. The plot moves almost instantly from reality to a supra-reality. He (Quentin) kept the back of his skull pressed firmly against the cool solid wall like it was his last point of connection to a same reality. (p. 10) And, frankly, it is his last point of connection with the everyday world. From this point on, Quentin's world changes: forces draw him toward the first portal, the portal that leads him to the school for magicians--Brakebill's.


Brakebill's appears to be the first of several worlds that Quentin passes through on his journey to maturation and self-knowledge; however, this supposed duality—between one world and another--is false. Because of Quentin's obsession with the world of Fillory all of his actions, all of his thoughts, reside there. Ultimately, one way to view the story is that it is the unpublished Fillory novel, The Magicians. In other words, Quentin is a character within a novel that he thinks he is reading. This interpretation furthers the idea of recursion, or the idea of fiction reflecting or reading itself. A Borgesian mirror effect exists within this very post-modern experiment in fantasy fiction.

The Magicians respects its antecedent tropes but ultimately the novel transcends them. Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist, grows, develops, and learns in our world and in our time, irrespective of his abilities as a Magus. His foibles are human failings, not super-human or magical ones. Quentin is closer to Holden Caulfied or one the Glass kids than to Harry Potter. Ultimately, his tale is a moral one: an Erziehungsroman. However, the novel's recursive nature and its sly literary tricks create a puzzle that places this novel in a category outside standard fantasy fiction.

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