Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Catabasis into the Underworld or Nykia in Fillory: A Reading of Lev Grossman's "The Magician King"

Lev Grossman sets off on a night-sea journey to skirt the edge of the genre where fantasy literature and literary fiction collide in his second "Fillory" novel. His artistic journey is a dangerous one, fraught with beastly memes and tropes that could scuttle his novelistic vessel at any moment. Always in danger of losing tone and voice, he navigates through the known waters of myth and psychology to give us one of the bravest fantasy novels of 2011.

The Magician King tells of Quentin Coldwater's catabasis into the underworld; a psychological tale wrapped in fantasy. Purporting to be  a"portal" novel, its devices sometimes seem taken from a classic Dungeons and Dragons scenario or mimic the frenetic world hopping of a magus through a series of constructed portals in World of Warcraft . The truth of the matter is that Grossman is well-versed in games, fantasy literature, literary memes, and psychological tropes and he employs them freely and liberally in The Magician King. The result is a somewhat disorienting meta-fiction that is self-referential and self-defining, resulting in a novel that cannot be ghettoized to the fantasy section of the book store or sit comfortably in the literary fiction section.

In this second book in what is developing either as a trilogy or a series, Quentin, the protagonist of both The Magicians and The Magician King, is a whiner; a self-involved, immature jerk, who lacks self-knowledge and whose involvement in magic results more often than not in mayhem and chaos rather than in order. In this novel, Quentin progresses from a student in a bildungsroman to a hero on a journey (a quest). He begins his journey as a blind hero (metaphorically sightless, as in King Lear and Oedipus the King) and as obtuse as that idiot savant--Parsifal. And because it is a second book, he undergoes a series of tests, leading of course to his apotheosis.

In The Magician King, Quentin rules as one of the magical-realm Fillory's four sovereigns--two kings and two queens. He lives in luxury but he yearns to be a hero. However, he has none of the obvious qualities of a hero; instead, he demonstrates a non-delineated yearning for heroics without the requisite skills or mindset at the same moment that he suffers from a solid dose of youthful ennui and a soupcon ( maybe a barrel) of egotism. In other words, he is a twenty-something kid who has had a good education at Brakebills, a secret school of Magic in upstate New York, and some luck, but he hasn't really changed, i.e. matured, yet. It is Quentin's psychological state and Grossman's meticulous control over his material in relating that state that raises The Magician King to a level of adult-fantasy.

Called upon by Ember to launch himself on a quest, Quentin sails east to find the seven golden keys and adventure, while Julia, one of the Queens, accompanies him on his voyage. Her presence and her past interact with the plot of the quest to form a two-fold plot: Quentin's adventure to find the keys and  Julia's education and ultimate apotheosis. Of the two Julia's education as a hedge-Magus informs and supports the action of Quentin's tale. In modern parlance, Quentin went to school, while Julia was schooled. Of the two, she is the more powerful and the strongest at the conclusion of the novel.

Through the telling of Julia's story, Grossman delves into what I think is his ultimate interest: an exploration of the source and meaning of magic and how we respond to it in fiction. His project is ultimately an encounter with the genre literature he loves but a type of literature he is not always comfortable with. At times, I feel him struggling with the genre, wrestling like Jacob and the angel. Rather than jump into fantasy literature head first like George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie, Grossman seems to be skirting the edge of the enchanted fountain, checking it out, examining its contours and its depth. He is a thinker and a reader who has emotional ties to C. S. Lewis, also a thinker. His fantasy is based in reality and ultimately a dialogue with the genre itself. We feel him struggling and thinking and we feel his pain as we follow him through the portal and then down the yellow brick road. Hopefully, we find treasure at the end of the rainbow.

Grossman's struggle with genre is not unique. What is unique is that he, along with Jonathan Lethem, Laura Miller, Colson Whitehead, Mat Johnson, James Hynes, Junot Diaz, and Michael Chabon (to name only a few), are the first generation of young, articulate, powerful American writers, who were raised during a period in which comics, genre movies, RPGs, MMORPGs, and genre fiction were ubiquitous and wildly seductive.This seduction is obvious and evident in their writing and as a result they are changing the landscape through a re-evaluation of genre and a re-definition of literary fiction.

See my review of The Magicians here: http://redrookreview.blogspot.com/2011/09/reading-lev-grossmans-magicians.html

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