Lev Grossman’s The Magicians takes on two of the anchors of children’s literature of the past decade – Harry Potter and Narnia (N.B. I’m well aware of the age of the Narnia books. I can’t help it if Hollywood is late to the party.) – and subverts the genre by moving the story out of the realm of childhood, showing that magic does not solve fundamental conflicts, and having the protagonist confront adult problems in an adult way. However, “adult,” in this case, reflects the stunted emotional growth and extended childhood of the modern world.
The first part of the book follows the Potter-esque story arc: Our Hero is confronted with the fact that magic exists and is transported to a school for magicians. Quentin Coldwater, a brainy nerd with a fixation on a series of children’s books involving a magical land called Fillory, is on his way to an interview for Princeton University when he finds himself in upstate New York, on the campus of Brakebills. He passes an entrance exam and, feeling that his life is dull and uninspiring, decides to attend. (The faculty use magic to ensure that his parents believe a cover story about Quentin’s college education.) There he meets Eliot, a dapper dresser with an aloof manner and unusual sexual quirks; Alice, the Hermione Granger of the story, a smart, hard-working, shy girl; and the rest of what will become the book’s equivalent of the Brat Pack. They study and drink their way through school, graduate, and have to decide what to do with their lives.
The friends spend hollow months drinking, drugging, and clubbing, staying up late, rising late, and financing their lifestyle through such dubious means as enchanting ATMs to provide cash. The magical life turns out to be just as unfulfilling as the one Quentin envisioned had he gone to Princeton. Then one of their classmates finds them with the news that the land of Fillory is not only real, but he knows how to reach it. At last, Quentin feels a purpose in his life. But things in Fillory don’t go well – how can they, when the Brakebills crew are a motley bunch of dissolute magical novices in a non-magical world, and Fillory is a world where magic is the norm?
In a way, all the fantastical trappings of the book are a form of artful misdirection: this is a novel of young, wealthy adults trying to make their way in an anchorless world. Passion, jealousy, betrayal, ennui, bad behavior, and a search for meaning are more to the point of the book than magic. Indeed, magic, though it permeates the book, is ultimately peripheral to the plot. The kids don’t seem to be terribly good at it, either, at least as compared with the Brakebills faculty. (It’s one thing for Professor Dumbledore to be able to cast complex charms while teenaged Harry stumbles for the correct pronunciation of a simple charm, and quite another for adult graduates to have trouble with what are supposed to be simple spells.)
The book has its funny parts, and its poignant parts, and its fantastical parts, but somehow the whole left me not fully satisfied. In part, I think, it’s because Quentin is not a terribly sympathetic lead character, and the entire book is told from his point of view. He has all the advantages a child could ask for – intelligence, the ability to get a top-notch college education (with an implication of enough wealth to finance the education), a stable (if aloof) set of parents – but is dissatisfied. He goes to Brakebills because he thinks he can find satisfaction there, but he is not. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that it wasn’t clear to me that he will ever be happy with where he is at any moment – a perpetual “grass is greener of there” sort of person. With the exception of Alice, none of the supporting characters are particularly sympathetic, either. It’s like Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero with magic spells: everyone needs a good slap in the face and to have their allowances taken away.
It is possible that the inability of the characters to be happy with all of the wonderful opportunities they have is, in fact, the point, and that readers are meant to take away the lesson that we should all make the most of what we have, that the grass is not necessarily greener elsewhere. Point taken. I just wish Quentin eventually became a real adult; perhaps then I would like him better.