the contextual life

thoughts without borders

short takes: the magicians by lev grossman

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Remember the last time you ran home to finish a book?  This is it, folks.  THE MAGICIANS is the most dazzling, erudite and thoughtful fantasy novel to date.  You’ll be bedazzled by the magic but also brought short by what it has to say about the world we live in.
—Gary Shteyngart, author most recently of super sad true love story

there’s been much discussion in the literary world about book blurbs, the marketing tool that asks well-known, well-regarded authors to come up with a positive sentence or two about a forthcoming book roughly within the same genre that they themselves write. this praise is then included on the book jacket and in press releases in order to attract the interest of bookstore browsers and media people. while some are cynical, doubting whether the blurber actually read the book, gary shteyngart’s words for lev grossman’s the magicians captures perfectly the encapsulation you feel while reading. it’s the kind of book that makes the walls and furniture drop out around you. with steady fascination and unwavering endurance, i finished all 400 pages in a week.

the magicians might feel familiar at the start—the main characters are a group of enchanted kids who go to a secret magic college—but let’s be honest, genre fiction only lends itself to so much originality. what rescues this story from the jaws of triteness is lev’s superb use of language and philosophical leanings.

in one scene, an uncharacteristically candid dean fogg, the head of Brakebills, the aforementioned magic school, gives an excellent soliloquy on the nature of magic:

“Sometimes I wonder if man was really meant to discover magic,” Fogg said expansively. “ It doesn’t really make sense. It’s a little too perfect, don’t you think? If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so. Words and thoughts don’t change anything. Language and reality are kept strictly apart—reality is tough, unyielding stuff, and it doesn’t care what you think or feel or say about it. Or it shouldn’t. You deal with it, and you get on with your life.

“Little children don’t know that. Magical thinking: that’s what Freud called it. Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children. The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded.

“But somewhere in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.

“I sometimes feel as though we’ve stumbled on a flaw in the system, don’t you? A short circuit? A category error? A strange loop? Is it possible that magic is knowledge that would be better off forsworn? Tell me this: Can a man who can cast a spell ever really grow up?”

in addition to making the barely-avoidable fantasy themes fresh, lev deftly handles the sex scenes that inevitably find their way into these stories. what often feels like an ex-pimply teenager making up for not getting attention from girls in high school, these moments in science fiction and fantasy can often leave a girl reader feeling icky. the magicians, as with any coming-of-age tale with the characters growing into their early 20s through the pages, sex is often uneludible. with lev, the encounters are tasteful, discreet, and not some invitation for the author to compensate for his pubescent frustrations. if lev were bitter about not getting the cheerleader, he isn’t showing it. he also scores major points for including a gay character who, while affecting a certain proclivity towards fashion, avoids the stereotypical mold as well.

lev grossman’s ability to bring scenery to the reader, breath life into characters, and create an instinctive pace makes the magicians a naturally unfolding tale that will leave you with a smirk on your face and a unquenchable desire to read the next chapter in the life of these young enchanters.

the second installment of the magicians series, the magician king, will be published by Viking in August 2011


Q: What was your inspiration for The Magicians? Were you, like Quentin, the kind of “nerd” who’s read and re-read The Chronicles of Narnia and The Once and Future King multiple times?

A: Is there any other kind of nerd? There were a lot of inspirations for The Magicians. Of course, I did all those things, and still do them. I suppose on one level I was trying to bring together the literary sensibilities of the Modernist writers I studied in graduate school, and the glorious escapism of the fantasy novels that I love, and mash them up together into one perfect book, where they would be forced to sit down and talk to each other. On another level I was going through a difficult time personally (divorce) and having a lot of fantasies about other, better worlds that I might possibly escape to. On still another level, it was 2004, and we were in the long two-year trough between Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I badly wanted something new to read. So badly that I decided to write something myself.

Q: How would you compare the C. S. Lewis and T. H. White books to those by J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman?

A: Very broadly speaking—very very broadly—I think the shift from Lewis and White (and for that matter Tolkien) to writers like Rowling and Pullman has to do with the gradual separation of fantasy from religion, specifically from Christianity. In Lewis and White, most of your supernatural power comes from God. There may be magic in the picture—Digory’s uncle Andrew is a magician, and of course there’s the White Witch—but the mightiest power is a mystical, spiritual Christian force. In Pullman and Rowling magic is the only power we see. There is no divine force. In Pullman’s universe magic comes from dust. Rowling’s understanding of magic is more difficult to theorize, but it is evidently tied in closely with human emotions like love and hate, rather than any deity. God may or may not exist in Harry’s world, but if he does he has withdrawn, and doesn’t interfere directly. Magic is a secular power. One of the ambitions of The Magicians is to crash these two world-views, the secular and the divine fantasy, into each other with maximum force.

Q:  The Chronicles of Narnia are superbly written but thinly veiled Christian parables. Did you intend to convey any similar lessons with The Magicians?

A: Well, I think it’s a bit of a red herring to call the Narnia books Christian parables. They exemplify some Christian virtues, certainly. But they’re pretty thickly veiled. And to me the veil is the most interesting part. As for The Magicians, it’s not a parable of any kind. You could probably (I’ve never tried) divide novels into two camps, those that try to build up theories and lessons, and those that explore the way that life is often too messy and difficult and cruel to fit any theories or lessons. The Magicians is in the second camp. Now that I’ve said all that: there is a character in The Magicians who teaches Quentin a very hard lesson about self-sacrifice.

*the Q&A was edited from the publisher’s press materials


idiosyncrasy (n.): an individualizing characteristic or quality
caterwaul (v.): to protest or complain noisily
sloop (n.): a fore-and-aft rigged boat with one mast and a single jib
dipsomania (n.): an uncontrollable craving for alcoholic liquors
penny-ante (adj.): small-time; two-bit
glassine (n.): a thin dense transparent or semitransparent paper highly resistant to the passage of air and grease
excrescence (n.): a disfiguring, extraneous, or unwanted mark or part
apropos (adj.): relevant and opportune
vernal (adj.): of, relating to, or occurring in the spring
sylvan (n.): one that frequents groves or woods
persiflage (n.): frivolous bantering talk; light raillery
bumptious (adj.): presumptuously, obtusely, and often noisily self-assertive
epiphenomenon (n.): a secondary phenomenon accompanying another and caused by it
kludge (n.): system and especially a computer system made up of poorly matched components
docent (n.): a teacher or lecturer;  a person who leads guided tours especially through a museum or art gallery
avuncular (adj.): suggestive of an uncle especially in kindliness or geniality
obstreperous (adj.): stubbornly resistant to control; unruly
topiary (adj.): of, relating to, or being the practice or art of training, cutting, and trimming trees or shrubs into odd or ornamental shapes
eidetic (adj.): marked by or involving extraordinarily accurate and vivid recall especially of visual image
ruminant (adj.): characterized by chewing again what has been swallowed
oenological (n.): a science that deals with wine and wine making
saurian (n.): any of a suborder of reptiles including the lizards and in older classifications the crocodiles and various extinct forms that resemble lizards
aeruginous (adj.): having the characteristics of or the color of verdigris— a green or greenish-blue poisonous pigment resulting from the action of acetic acid on copper and consisting of one or more basic copper acetates
multifarious (adj.): having or occurring in great variety

Written by Gabrielle

March 29, 2011 at 8:18 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , , ,

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