The Magicians by Lev Grossman

“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

A sweet hippy band of the 1960s, the Loving Spoonful, had a hit record called “Do You Believe in Magic?”  The lyrics spoke of a “young girl’s heart,” going out dancing and the “magic of rock and roll” (rhyming with “young girl’s soul”).  It was a light, happy sound.

There is no charm about the magicians in this novel, though.  If you were to find a parallel in 1960s music, it would be the Doors: a band that was as hedonistic and exciting as it was dangerous.  This magic is terrifyingly real, and it fascinates.  It is something hard to deny.

Our hero, Quentin Coldwater, is seventeen years old, middle class, living in Brooklyn, and trapped in an uneasy relationship with two friends, James and Julia.  They are “the nerdiest of the nerds” at high school.  Quentin regularly escapes from his unsatisfying life into the world of a series of Tolkienesque, or Narnia-like fantasy novels, “Fillory and Further,” about a magical land discovered by some English children in the 1930s.  Fillory is a book within a book, in this narrative.  Quentin also likes performing basic magic tricks, to amuse himself and his friends and to brighten the low opinion he has of himself.

On a grey, chilly afternoon in Brooklyn, Quentin and James are heading for a college interview in an ordinary, suburban house.  At the house, things begin to take a turn for the extraordinary, as Quentin opens a brown manila envelope.

At this point, I was reminded of Harry Potter – as you may also be, dear reader.  Quentin is now an applicant to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, somewhere in upstate New York (and yet, not).  He passes the examination (a tour de force in itself), and is told by the Dean something we already sense:  “First things first:  Magic is real.”  He doesn’t altogether break his links with home: his possessions are sent on, and his parents are somehow made to believe he is fine, although mostly absent.  He is “going to be a m…..f….ing magician.  Or what the hell else was he going to do with his life?”

You may realize by now, dear reader, this is far from Harry Potter-land.  Quentin and his new friends at Brakebills are typical college students.  For a start, they curse fluently (see quote above).  They have sex, drink far too much, cook elaborate meals and worry about their complicated relationships with each other.  They work hard at their magic, and they play hard too.  Brakebills has the air of a traditional Oxford college, with lots of stone, gables, candelabras and marble fountains; it is perpetual summer.  Quentin, still confusedly trying to find his way, is abruptly promoted to Second Year and becomes one of the elite group of “Physical Kids.”  There is the sharp, energetic Janet; the effete, flawed pleasure-seeker, Eliot; the plump, affable Josh; Penny, an intense, brilliant boy with a Mohican haircut; and last and most importantly, the small, shy Alice, a girl of remarkable power and beauty.

About one quarter of the way through the book, Quentin and his new friends fly to Brakebills South (“fly” is the key word, here).  At this point, the narrative spins off into a vivid, irresistible and beautifully described world of white snowfields, dusty cellars, sleeping water dragons, a pixie professor with beautiful dragonfly wings  – and above all, dizzying spells and incantations, light and darkness, fire and ice.  The story twists itself inside out, turns on itself.  There are short and uncomfortable interludes in the no-longer-real-world of their parents’ homes. But finally, our fully-fledged young sorcerer graduates find themselves leaving “the jeweled chrysalis” of Brakebills and returning to the gritty, dirty and exciting city of New York, with all its pleasures and temptations.

OK, all of the above sounds like fun, right?  Wrong.  The darkness is there, and has already introduced itself much earlier during a Brakebills lecture, in the form of a sinister little man in a gray English suit, half of his face obscured by a leafy branch, with too many fingers on each hand.

Meanwhile, from New York Quentin and his friends travel to the alternative world of Fillory, and into an empty, video-game world of stone piazzas and fountains that repeat themselves.  And the evil re-emerges and identifies itself, with renewed horror.  But in the end, hope returns for Quentin as he sits in a Manhattan office building one day, depressed again.

I read this novel extremely fast, and was sorry when it ended.  This is more than a slick, highly imaginative fantasy novel with clever special effects.  What I also enjoyed was the earthy language and the turbulent relationships among our band of magicians (Quentin acquires a black eye at one point).  Even while they wield their amazing powers, they never lose their humanity.

At Quentin’s graduation, the Dean of Brakebills observes:  “I think you’re magicians because you’re unhappy.  A magician is strong because he feels pain.  He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it…You have learned to break the world that has tried to break you.”

So there it is.  Magic is more pain, less fun, and despite Loving Spoonful’s entreaties, not at all about dancing, hearts and flower power.

Author Note: Lev Grossman was born in Lexington, Massachusetts in 1969, the son of two English professors.  His twin brother Austin is a video game designer and novelist.  Their sister Bathsheba is a sculptress in New Mexico.  Lev graduated from Harvard University in 1991 with a degree in literature, and pursued but did not complete doctoral studies in comparative literature at Yale.  As a journalist, he wrote articles on technology and culture for various publications and websites, including the Village Voice, New York Times and Salon.com.  In 2002 he became senior writer and book and video game critic for Time Magazine; the New York Times has called him “one of this country’s smartest and most reliable critics.”  He also founded and contributes to Time’s “NerdWorld” blog (http://nerdworld.blogs.time.com/), and has conducted extensive interviews with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.  He published his first novel, “Warp,” about a young graduate who cannot find his direction in life, in 1997.  His second novel, “Codex,” a literary thriller, was published in 2004; and “The Magicians” in August, 2009.  He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Lev Grossman on Brooklyn Bridge
Lev Grossman on Brooklyn Bridge

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