"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Thursday, September 03, 2009

"I announce with trembling pleasure...."

Well, no, not quite that bad. But I have read a good book recently. And it's moral seems to be: Mommas, don't let your babies grow up reading Narnia.

Which is part of the conscious antecedent of this novel. The other part is Harry Potter. Start with the premise of the story: Quentin, the protagonist, is "invited" to enter Brakebills, an exclusive school for magicians in upstate New York. Not wizards, witches, sorcerers, or warlocks, but magicians, because there the comparisons to Hogwarts start to wane. The root in "magus" is intentional. Entering Brakebills is not as easy as getting into Hogwarts; one must pass a rigorous test, because magic itself, while real, is a product of knowledge and training as much as ability and talent; and like but unlike Harry Potter, Quentin's ability and failure to grasp this important point is one of the driving forces of the story.

But this novel is less about story than it is about characters, which is its greatest virtue. That's not a slight on J.K. Rowling; but The Magicians is not focussed on a complex plot that has to unravel over 7 volumes; it is centered on a set of characters who are at once more adult and more American than the children of Harry Potter. But there's a reason for that, and it's not built on diminishing Rowling's achievement; indeed, it's impossible to imagine this novel without Rowling's work, and it's even easier to understand this novel if you know the story of the boy who lived.

First, let's set out the premises of this novel. Magic is real (except it really isn't; more on that in a moment), but it is a matter of manipulation of forces no one really understands (students are, in fact, warned against pursuing the question "How is this possible?" That way, they are assured, lies madness. There are more than a few dark areas of this "world" where maps are clearly marked "There by Tygers"; it is part of the pleasure of the plot that the characters are drawn into exploring so many of them. They are, indeed, places that lead to madness, in ways J.K. Rowling's childrens books could never contemplate.). Magic "works" by knowledge: knowledge of spells, which function only in their original tongues, so students must learn Old Norse or Arabic, Estonian and Middle English, etc., etc. One of the wonders of Grossman's world is how international it is, and how dependent magicians are on learning arcana (without pursuing scholarship, the attempt to understand arcana), as well as learning just how to wiggle their fingers (there's no easier way to describe it) in order to create the spell they are looking for. No one knows how it works, they only know that it must be done in a certain way in order to achieve the result desired. They also know that one mistake, one dropped syllable, say, in a spell in Old Dutch, can have disastrous consequences.

Which is one of the key parts of the plot, and it illustrates a central theme of the book: peril lurks everywhere. But one of the pleasures of the plot is that those perils have a source, and that source doesn't lie in the mysterious nature of the magical forces being invoked. Indeed, magic plays a supporting role here (as in Harry Potter) but not a dominant one. What dominates here are the characters. The evil that men do comes from, And women. But not just randomly from the universe.

The children of Adam, as C.S. Lewis quaintly called them in Narnia, are not just the source of law and order, but the cause of disorder, too. Quentin is, like Harry Potter, a talented magician who knows nothing of the world of magicians. But he does know the fantasy world of Fillory, a clear literary descendant of Narnia. There are 6 volumes in the Fillory series, each set in a magical land of mythical creatures, but watched over by two magical sheep, not a Christ-figure lion. Each volume, we are told, involves children, but children of different generations (as they grow older, they stop visiting). The first of the children to visit Fillory finds it through the back of a grandfather clock (and why he was hiding there becomes another important character point, again lifting this book above the "won't somebody think of the children?" level of most children's books, and into the land where adults, sometimes unfortunately, live). Ironically (again, post-modern irony), the last volume of the series, "The Magicians," is lost. No fan of the series (and all of Quentin's friends at Brakebill's are fans of the series) has seen it. More's the pity when Quentin finally does.

The first half of the novel is seeing the world of Brakebills through Quentin's eyes. In this, he's a Harry Potter figure, introducing the reader to a world as strange to him as it is to us. But in a sort of reverse of Harry, Quentin is a "geek" in his own world, only to find at Brakebills that every student is as smart as he is, if not smarter, so his achievements in magic are no more remarkable than Harry's, and he lacks Harry's distinction of being "the boy who lived." One of the themes of the novel is evident in life at Brakebills, (and a sharp contrast to Hogwarts) and that is: what does a magician do after life at Brakebills? Like any modern university (in contrast to say, art schools which pride themselves on placing their students after graduation; most US universities give you a degree and don't want to see you again, or care what you do), Brakebills sends their graduates on their way with a single answer to the question "What now"?: "Whatever you want to do." And this is where the dissipation, that most modern of American afflictions for those who can afford it, sets in.

It's also where the character development truly sets in. Unlike either Narnia or Harry Potter, there is no evil menace to battle after Brakebills, and Quentin and his friends all feel that lack keenly. What is available to them is sex, drugs, and alcohol, which they consume with abandon, and with consequences. Sex, especially, is not pursued with affecting other people, and the relationships of the characters is often more interesting than the premise of this "alternate" world, which, like Rowling's story, raises this novel above the usual fantasy fare. Far, far above; and not least of which because it so artfully uses the fantasy fare of our childhood, even if we are Baby Boomers and not recently graduated from Hogwarts ourselves.

That fantasy intrudes when reality overlaps the fantasy of Fillory. Fillory, it seems exists; it can be traveled to, though even the journey there is not a simple one, or overseen by benevolent (or even interested) forces. Some mysteries of the plot are answered by the end, as they should be; plot points you weren't sure were plot points explained and tied up. Others, though, like the "way station" between Quentin's world and Fillory, are not explained; nor should they be. At one point Alice, Quentin's lover, mocks him because he alone of the students they know believes magic is "real." "It isn't?", he asks, confused. No, she tells him it isn't. We end up believing her because, like Hermione, she knows so much more than Quention/Harry does. But we also end up like Quentin, wondering what she means; sure she is right, but not so sure we like that answer. Like the theory, and even in the end the practice, of magic, some things are better left unexplored. That way, we learn, truly does lay madness.

Because Fillory never lives up to the stories the characters have all read about it. They never quite shake the conviction that Fillory is a place where the desires of their childhood will be fulfilled, where they will be the heroes of fiction who always prevail no matter how dire the circumstances, no matter how little they know about what they have stumbled into. And only when it is much, much too late, do they find they haven't stumbled into it at all. Which is another point where the plot takes up an element from one of the Harry Potter novels, and puts it in a very, very different perspective. Oh, and did I mention the centaurs, who seem drawn as much from Harry Potter as from Gulliver's Travels? And the evil? Well, let's just say there is more evil than just one person is responsible for. And yet the lessons on power and powerlessness are almost equal to those Rowling had to teach.

I am trying, if you hadn't guessed by now, not to reveal too many spoilers. But to come back to the characters and do them justice, first: when Quentin is invited to Brakebills, he's already facing the end of high school and the question of what to do next, and mooning over his girl friend (but not "girlfriend") Julia, and living in the shadow of his friend James; whom Julia loves. Brakebills brings an abrupt end to that life long friendship, one that was going to end with college anyway, but Quentin abandons his life at home once he's accepted to the school of magic. Only later does he learn more about Julia and James; but that would be telling.

Quentin makes friends at Brakebills, including one enigmatic but powerfully talented girl who is almost a reverse Hermione: her parents are magicians, but she wasn't invited to Brakebills; and she is neither talkative nor bossy, but she is also the superior magician, as it turns out. By the time they graduate, she and Quentin are lovers, but it is clear she is the adult, he is still the immature man. That is shown both in their relationship (which he almost destroys, in an alcohol-induced haze), and in the end of the book. They live with a group of friends both at school and afterwards, in a sort of "St. Elmo's Fire/Friends" situation, an an ennui that leads them to dare journey to Fillory (they have been warned not to seek such places in school, after an object lesson in the dangerous power of magic). That they don't learn that lesson is both necessary to the plot and a logical outcome of their characters. It is the character that rules here, as it should in any good story.

The lesson in power comes at the novel's climax, and to say too much about it would give too much away. It recalls, in some ways, the best of the climactic scenes of the later Harry Potter novels, especially The Order of the Phoenix and The Deathly Hallows. But it is quite different from either of them, and if anything underlines Lord Acton's aphorism, first addressed to the Pope who formulated the doctrine of papal infallibility: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely." The novel takes up that idea in the dissipation and moral corruption of the characters, and then takes up the question of absolute, or near absolute, power, especially the power of death. Rowling and Grossman teach much the same lesson about that, but with radically different results, and not necessarily from the same perspectives. Still, the almost unavoidable contrast between the two, set up by Grossman's premise and the plot he employes, yield revealing insights into the question. Grossman does not preach the powerlessness that allows Harry to prevail in the end, and which is key to Voldemort's defeat; but he does examine, rather fully, the dangerous nature of power, and the evils that result, even unintentionally, from wielding near-absolute power.

In the end, consequences in a children's novel are not quite the same as they are in adult novels. Childrens novels ultimately teach that, despite whatever happens, the consequences can be overcome, can even be controlled. No death in Harry Potter is as shattering to the characters (not even Dumbledore's, because Harry sees him again, and Dumbledore explains it was all part of a plan, and therefore even death works for the good) as the deaths in The Magicians, and where Voldemort only thinks he is controlling events, he is a piker compared to what happens to who, it turns out, is manipulating Quentin and his friends. Evil, too, is the result of more terrible, and more human, things than even patricide and envy. It is a consequence of that world adults find themselves living in, and the one they try so valiantly to shield children from knowing about, until they have to. Consequences in The Magicians are not, finally, teaching moments, or even epiphanies. They simply are, the way the shattering of a falling glass on a stone floor is what happens when you knock a glass off in your carelessness. This is what distinguishes Grossman's world from Rowling's, but the distinction does not make one superior to the other. It is simply a difference, and in a reading world where Narnia and Harry Potter already exist, it is a tour de force to pull off the conceits of The Magicians without ever once denigrating your predecessors.

Where this novel goes, in the end, is back to where it begins, and that is neither Narnia nor Harry Potter's England, but the teachings of Ecclesiastes:

Futility, utter futility, says the Speaker, everything is futile. What does anyone profit from all his labor and toil here under the sun? Generations come and generations go, while the earth endures for ever. Ecclesiastes 1:2-4, REB)

That is not an idle or passing reference. When the novel begins, Quentin is on his way to an interview pursuant to an application to Princeton, but he's mostly pursuing the college degree because that's what "nerds" do. He is diverted to Brakebills instead, through a circuitous (and not, it turns out, serendipitous) route. But it is also the motto of Alice's parents, both magicians; and of the students Quentin lives with and among, when they all leave Brakebills; and even to the "trust fund" that sustains their lifestyle of comfortable ennui, a gift from previous generations of magicians. Those few verses are the warp and woof of this novel, and another few provide its denoument:

One futher warning, my son: there is no end to the writing of books, and much study is wearisome. (Ecclesiastes 12: 12, REB)
By the end of the story, all the knowledge of magic they have accrued has endangered them, saved them, ruined them, and cost them a price they can never repay; and it has all been in the service of still another power, which they too belatedly discover. If this sounds like a dreary and almost existential theme, it almost is; but Grossman's writing redeems it, and pulls it back from falling over the edge of the abyss. I would tell you more and explain how Ecclesiastes fits into the long denoument), because I would really like to explore both the premise of this novel, and the consequences of the characters' actions (and talk about Brakeills South, and all the related stories about people who affect the story and the characters, that I haven't mentioned), but I would give too much away. It's a fascinating read. Mine was a borrowed copy, but I intend to put one on my shelves and have it to read again. The only pity is I'd have so much trouble getting the British version, which is the jacket above. For some reason, British publishers have cooler dust jackets than American publishers. The American one is below.


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