The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman (2014) 401 p.
I read The Magicians, the first novel in Lev Grossman’s wildly brilliant fantasy trilogy, in 2012 when I was 23 years old and had been living in Melbourne for about a year. I read it at a time when I’d first moved out of home and moved to a new city, when I was first trying to actually start my career, and when I was gradually realising that the dream I’d been harbouring since I was very young of one day being a successful writer was probably not going to happen. Dream is the wrong word, probably; it was not something I aspired towards, but something I assumed would just happen. It went unexamined, and I was honestly embarrassed when it dawned on me sometime that year, as I was being thoroughly introduced to the Real World, that it was still glimmering away at the back of my mind when I was old enough to know better.
I mention this because it meant I read The Magicians at precisely the right time in my life. It follows the coming of age of Quentin Coldwater, a sulky nerd from Brooklyn who finds himself recruited into Brakebills, a secret school for magicians, and later discovers that he can visit the unexpectedly-real magical world of Fillory (a Narnia stand-in) that he grew up reading about. But only on the surface is The Magicians a book about what Hogwarts and Narnia would be like if they were real; more broadly, it’s a novel about failure and loss and ennui, about the quarter-life crisis post graduation, when what you’ve been dreaming about for so long is finally accomplished but turns out to be hollow and unsatisfying. It was a book that well reflected how I felt that year: not unhappy, but listless and discontented.
Goodreads is full of angry reviewers who were promised “Harry Potter for grown-ups” and failed to read anything beyond that. Also with reviewers whingeing, apparently without any self-awareness, that Quentin is “unlikeable” – not to come off as a literary snob, but that’s a sure sign of an immature reader. OK, no, there’s no way to write that without coming off as a literary snob. But come on, “unlikeable?” Even reviewers who praise these series can’t help but snipe at Quentin for taking so long to grow up; the archetypical man-child of Generation Y. But aren’t we all like Quentin, at least a little bit? This is why it always irks me when readers toss books aside because the characters are “unlikeable”: it displays a lack of honesty, and sympathy, and perhaps reveals fear. We might all wish to be Harry Potter, but odds are we’re more like Peter Pettigrew.
Anyway, a major part of why this subversive approach works so well is because Grossman, like so many of us, was raised on fantasy stories and has come to recognise the truth; not the simple, obvious truth that familiar narrative templates are an unrealistic way to expect your life to turn out, but that so many of us ostensibly acknowledge this while still being disappointed by it. I’m not just talking about Hogwarts and Narnia here; nobody actually thinks that’s going to happen. I mean every narrative – all of them, in every form. I knew full well, for example, that it was ridiculous to move to a new city and expect my life to be full of wise-cracking early 20s adventures with a tight-knit circle of friends like any number of TV sitcoms, but that didn’t stop me feeling gnawingly disappointed about it, suspicious that everybody else was having a great time and living up to their full potential, unable to relinquish the nagging feeling that my life was not all it could be. Grossman himself has a great autobiographical essay about a time right out of college when, full of stupid dreams and ideas, he holed himself up in a cabin in Maine to try be a writer and instead almost lost his mind.
On some level I still didn’t believe that I could be lonely, even though it was staring me in the face, all day and all night. I genuinely thought that because I wanted to be a writer, that made me different from other people: mysterious, self-contained, a lone wolf, Han Solo.
Narrative, in all its forms and genres, conditions us to expect life to unfold in certain ways: characters capable of development, significant arrivals or departures, experiences that teach us lessons for better or worse, problems that have solutions. As Choire Sicha puts it in a better review than mine over at Slate:
Momentousness, epicness, heroism, so common in young adult and fantasy fiction, are poison. They will make you wistful, falsely pre-nostalgic, soul-sick. Life isn’t that. The desire for the clarity of your own tale is infantile selfishness.
Midway through The Magician’s Land (after an excellent long segment involving a Neuromancer-esque magical heist perpetrated by a bunch of oddballs hired by a mysterious recruiter) Quentin discovers a memoir written by one of the Chatwin boys, the trilogy’s equivalent of Narnia’s Pevensie siblings. Spanning several chapters, the memoir shows what happens as he and his siblings are drawn fully and totally into a fairytale. It’s a nightmarish tragedy, particularly as his older brother becomes gripped with a fear that as he grows older he’s being gradually pushed out of Fillory:
“I know how you feel, I hate it when I’m not asked. But it’s not as bad here as all that, is it? I mean, Fillory isn’t everything.”
“But it is.” He stopped walking and looked me in the eye. “It is everything. What else is there? This? Earth?”
A second reason this approach works is because Grossman is genuinely a big ol’ fantasy nerd who loves this stuff as much as the rest of us. If Brakebills and Fillory and the Neitherlands were a purely academic construct written by a stern university professor, they would be dry and dusty places indeed. But Grossman’s fantasy, while picking apart the genre, also celebrates it:
Here was a great secret: whale were spellcasters. Jesus, the entire ocean was crisscrossed with a whole lattice of submarine magic. Most of the spells took multiple whales to cast, and were designed to bend and herd large clouds of krill, and occasionally to reinforce the integrity of large ice shelves.
And there was something else – something down there in the black abyssal trenches of the ocean. Something that wanted to rise. The whales were keeping it down.
The third and final reason this cynical, realistic approach to the genre works so well is because it doesn’t stay there; it doesn’t wallow in it. It’s easy to think, as The Magician’s Land expands the cast of viewpoint characters (many of whom are nowhere near as messed up as the original ones) and Quentin himself matures into a functioning adult, that the point of the first book has rather been forgotten. But that’s not the case at all. Outgrowing your childhood fantasies is a painful phase, but that’s all it is – a phase. Towards the conclusion of The Magician’s Land is a scene in which Julia shows Quentin a magical garden where “all the thoughts and feelings that had ever been thought and felt existed in the form of plants, blooming and green as they passed through people’s minds and lived in their hearts, and then drying up and turning brown and crisp as they passed out of mind, sometimes to bloom again in another season, sometimes gone forever.”
Here, still, we see the original theme of The Magicians. “Awe and wonder are harder to find than they once were,” Julia comments. Yet they soon encounter a small, strange and beautiful plant which Quentin recognises:
“This is a feeling you had, Quentin,” she said. “Once, a very long time ago. A rare one. This is how you felt when you were eight years old, and you opened one of the Fillory books for the first time, and you felt awe and hope and joy and longing all at once. You felt them very strongly, Quentin. You dreamed of Fillory, then, with a power and an innocence that not many people ever experience. That’s where all this began for you. You wanted the world to be better than it was.”
“Someone must be feeling it now,” Quentin said. “That’s why it’s green.”
Julia nodded. “Someone somewhere.”
Though even now the plant shrank and dried and died again.
This is perhaps the Magicians trilogy neatly encapsulated. It’s a series about the damaging, dangerous power that hope and longing and expectation can have on us, especially in narrative form – but at the same time it exalts that power, that magic, as something which is still worth having. I’m grateful Lev Grossman wrote a fantasy series in which the magic is quashed and the dreams dashed, but I don’t for a second want it to be a new template for the genre, and neither does he. I don’t believe that any of us are the poorer for having gone through these raised and dashed hopes and dreams. It’s part of growing up. Grossman finishes the series not with a sad allegory about the death of starry-eyed excitement, but with a beautiful metaphor for being a writer, and a creative artist in general:
He’d come a long way to get here. He was very far from the bitter, angry teenager that he’d been in Brooklyn, before all this started, and thank God for that. But the funny thing was that after all this time he still didn’t think that that miserable teenager was wrong. He didn’t disagree with him – he still felt solidarity on the major points. The world was fucking awful. It was a wretched, desolate place, a desert of meanginlessness, a heartless wasteland, where horrific things happened all the time for no reason and nothing good lasted for long.
He’d been right about the world, but he was wrong about himself. The world was a desert, but he was a magician, and to be a magician was to be a secret spring – a moving oasis. He wasn’t desolate, and he wasn’t empty. He was full of emotion, full of feelings, bursting with them, and when it came down to it that’s what being a magician was. They weren’t ordinary feelings – they weren’t the tame, domesticated kind. Magic was wild feelings, the kind that escaped out of you and into the world and changed things. There was a lot of skill to it, and a lot of learning, and a lot of work, but that was where the power began: the power to enchant the world.
Read out of context these scenes seem trite, or even arrogant, but I can assure you that as a culmination of everything that’s happened over 1,500 pages, they’re deeply affecting. The Magician’s Land is a brilliant conclusion to one of the best fantasy series and coming-of-age stories of the past decade, and I really can’t recommend it enough. It’s hard to stress how much I enjoyed this trilogy, how invested in it I was, and how glad I am that I read it at the right time in my life. With which I still have no idea what I’m doing – but then, Grossman’s books are among the things that made me realise that’s OK.