le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Magicians: potter, narnia & frustration

At the prompting of a couple of my Adolescence class students, I finally caved and checked out Lev Grossman's The Magicians from the library. I stuck with it, despite wanting to give up after about 50 or 75 pages; I got stubborn about seeing it through.

I find myself crankily perplexed, now that I've finished reading. The book is a weird mishmash of things, with a take on children's fantasy that I don't quite know how to read. In essence, it's a coming-of-age magical school story; the bulk of the narrative occurs during Quentin's years at college:  Brakebills school of magical pedagogy (which seems, somehow, to be a slight misuse of the word pedagogy; at any rate, I wish my own pedagogy was magical). My students brought up the book when I mentioned (after a question in another class) the relative rarity of novels set during college, with college-aged protagonists -- in particular, the rarity of such books aimed at a younger readership (Pamela Dean's Tam Lin is an exception; it seems that most YA college-setting books are also fantasy fiction, frequently set in fantasy lands with fantasy universities of Magic - Diana Wynne Jones's Year of the Griffin is one such example).

Quite a long time ago, I read a book that my sister had read (I think for college - so this would have been mid-90s). I can't remember what it was called or who wrote it, except that it was set around college-age, and in New York City (I think), and felt grey and gritty and slightly headachey. I think there was a character in it named Flavia, which I remember only because it was the first time I came across that name.
Anyway, I read the book as an early-high-schooler, and didn't really care for it (most likely because I didn't really understand it, not on an emotional experiential level). The impression I have of that book is just flat and grey like that awful grimy dead snow and slush that collects in street gutters in the very late winter.

The Magicians was very like that. I am a fan of books (and films) about great unhappiness, or bleakness, or depression. Someday this pain will be useful to you leapt to the top of my list of favorites after I read it. The movies I love most leave you feeling, as a friend once said, a little bit like you wish you were dead. I do not like uplifting or rollicking stories. I don't like happy characters.

But the characters in this book were painfully flattened, paper dolls really, tricked out with window dressing from Rowling's books (obviously) and retreading ground already well laid by the unbelievably talented Diana Wynne Jones. I have no idea if Grossman ever read Jones's work, but anyone who has cannot miss the resonances and echoes of her ideas and themes. This is not an accusation of plagiarism, but what it does do is make Grossman's work pale by comparison. Pale to the point of nonexistence, really.

Fillory, the books-and-world within The Magicians, is a straight-up ripoff of Narnia. This is also, evidently, intentional, but it doesn't work right. Neither do the Potteresque references, oblique or direct. It's as if Grossman read the Potter series, then said "I can do better than this, and I can make it more sexy and add drinking and make is Edgy and Raw and Powerful."
 Then sat down and overhauled Rowling's books.
Except he inserts all kinds of crap instead of improving.

The Potter and Narnia aspects of the Magicians are too large, too significant, to be just references or allusions or even, as reviewers like to say, sly jokes or tongue-in-cheek jabs. Too much similarity just makes the book feel like it's a mashup of these two fantasy series, refracted through the grey, snow-grimy lens of flat, frankly unlikable, characters. The characters who struck me as most interesting - Eliot and Alice - get desperately short shrift; neither is at all developed. They're shorthands, and dull ones at that: Eliot, a fop, a connoisseur of wines, an unrepentant alcoholic, effortlessly talented at magic. Alice, small, a bit mousy, fiercely talented and intelligent.
But we know nothing about what these characters are, or want, or feel, or believe - they are figures being moved around the book in a way that feels desperately disjointed and desperately, insufficiently, clever.
Grossman's attitude toward the fantasy genre is obnoxious, especially since he owes his entire novel's publication (and maybe its existence) to the genre and that genre's popularity. The Magicians would not exist were it not for the Potter phenomenon. Yet he seems to be smirking sidelong even as he borrows and incorporates elements of those books into his, as if to say "this is REAL Littrature; your poor fluff is just for foolish, deluded adults and unknowing, inexperienced children. True sophisticates will appreciate the cleverness of - ha ha! - a secret teenage wizard who is unhappy for no obvious reasons!"
There might as well be a sticker on the front cover that reads: THIS ARE SERIUS LITRATURE. SERIUS LITRATURE IS SERIUS.

The total absence of anything approximating joy or even mild pleasure left me impatient and irritated with every character in the text. Again, I love misery, but I don't want to see people wallowing in it without knowing how or why they're miserable. Quentin does not have anything that looks to me like depression or true anxiety, anything like a mental illness; he also has no external causes for his misery. He has serious anomie, a state of life I can relate to, but have no desire to wallow in vicariously. Moreover, Quentin's anomie doesn't lead either him OR us as readers anywhere, except into a totally obvious anticlimax in Fillory that is hugely unsatisfying narratively and emotionally.

I am still not really sure what Grossman is trying to do - or thinks he's doing - with his Narnian world. There are some nice touches to Fillory - the clocks embedded in trees, the Cozy Horse (though that is a bit cloyingly saccharine, and sounds like it belongs in the Raggedy Ann books), the large "soft and sympathetic" sailor bunnies. But all of these things are really just slight turns on creations from Lewis's fantasy world; it isn't Grossman's originality or creativity here at all. The Neitherlands, the world between worlds, full of pools through which one passes to another world, is a straight ripoff of The Magician's Nephew - and plays too prominent a role to be just a riff, an homage, a reference. You cannot pilfer from books and then pretend to have done something original and clever by surrounding your pilferings with dour, unlikable characters.

In the end, this book is more of a problem than a delight, and it isn't a problem in a bright and intellectual way, either. The pleasures of wrangling with this particular text are relatively few; Grossman is doing nothing subversive with children's fiction at all. He's hewing to the old line that those silly books are for children, and we adults are just too wise, too sophisticated, too knowing to believe in that kind of foolish crap. And look what happens to the sucker who, even as an adult, does return (literally and metaphorically) to fantasy land! 

If anything good has come out of my reading of Grossman's novel, it's that I now appreciate, even more vividly, the brilliance of writers like Diana Wynne Jones. Even Lewis's Narnia, for all its many problematic aspects, still has a glow of originality around it. The Voyage of the dawn treader is a glorious book, one with truly complex emotions and themes, far more so than anything Grossman can come up with. And for fantastic college stories, Dean's Tam Lin blows Grossman out of the water.

And realizing that Narnia and Tam Lin and Derkholm are even better than you initially thought is nothing to sneeze at. Though I don't advise you discover their greatness via Grossman; instead, re-read those old classics with a smart but affectionate eye.


Library Diva said...

Hi sis, the book you are thinking of is "Everything Looks Impressive" by Hugh Kennedy. I still have it. It was very gritty and depressing, the story of a boy who sacrificed his relationship with his high school sweetheart to attend Harvard or Yale on a scholarship, had a lot of difficulty fitting in with his suitemates whose folks had paid cash for their education, and fell for an upperclassman lesbian who dies after getting assaulted by some gay-bashers. Flavia was the only bright spot in the book, it's no wonder she stands out aside from the name.

You are right about fiction set in college. I did a feature on my blog about it once. I could only come up with two other books besides this one: "I am Charlotte Simmons" and "The Secret History." And all three share the theme of college being a jarring, traumatic experience. I just wonder where they get that crap. I absolutely loved college, loved it from orientation, sure I missed you guys and that was an adjustment, but it was such an exciting time, full of interesting people and amazing things to learn. I just wonder, why all the gloom and doom?

kittens not kids said...

ACK! THANK YOU THANK YOU for the title info. I thought "everything" might be in the title, but all i could think of is "everything is illuminated," which is jonathan safran foer's book that i cannot seem to read.

What's especially odd is that the little bits of fantasy/YA set in colleges tends to be pretty good - NOT doom & gloom. Diana Wynne Jones's Year of the Griffin does a great job of capturing the awesomeness of first term at college - having friends, and studying, and terrible professors, and learning new things, and awful food - all of it. But it's a YA book, in a magical college. with griffins.

it's a puzzle.