The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Reviewed by John Clute

The Magicians, UK cover

The Magicians, US cover

There was nothing exactly wrong at first, and hundreds of pages passed with nothing exactly going wrong; so why, at p.332, should the reader (this one, anyway) find himself baulking at the thought of reading even one more page, baulking for almost a month at clawing through the last few chapters of The Magicians, Lev Grossman's new novel, a hedge-magic tale that quickly turns into a Hogwarts fantasy set in crosshatch country, and then opens an Inner Door to something very much like Narnia? I mean, doesn't that sound like fun? I mean, doesn't that sound memorious? I mean, isn't it kind of what we're supposed to revel in nowadays, to be dragged along the chrome runnels of a story where every twisty turn and namecheck is second nature to everybody—the author, the reader, the characters, the book talking to itself? The Magicians (up to p.332 at least) is a book where everybody knows what everybody knows, or soon will. There seems to be a name for everything, and everything in its place. It seems airless.

More than airless: terrifying. The Magicians terrifies not by conveying a sense that the labyrinthine ways of Story expose sigils of telling that cannot be further paraphrased, the sort of terror that the superficially garish Stephen King conveys so unerringly; The Magicians terrifies (and stopped at least one reader short) by conveying a sense that what is untold is simply that which has not been told yet, that what is can be told: straight on. Which is frightening bollocks. And it may be that Lev Grossman—bound to the course of writing a Young Adult novel that goes off the rails of school and sex and stuff about halfway through in order to get to the real and railless sigils of adult life, and bamboozled perhaps by the bluestocking felicity of his story-craft, page after page exemplifying a dreadful writers'-workshop-like scud through rough seas unscathed—simply decided that he could get away with telling his readers more than they expected to hear (though less than he may think he is actually telling) about the world and the story he threads through it. If this is what Grossman tried to create, a tale machined for market, then this is astonishingly competent writer may have written exactly the book he wanted to write.

Which is I guess what hung me out to dry.

But let us approach p.332 from the beginning. A lot goes on very fast in The Magicians. Two structuring premises interact. One: a Hogwarts-like school for magic called Brakebills educates specially selected Young Adults (not children, as in J. K. Rowling) for purposes never fully revealed here, though we guess that Brakebills may in fact be a forcing academy for Secret Masters: ethical Secret Masters whose task—keeping homo sapiens from terminating the planet—they may be performing even now (the last pages of the book hint at a sequel). Two: like many of his co-students (Brakebills is full of sex and dysfunction, as befits the Young Adult trade), young Quentin is deeply familiar with a series of children's books about a Secondary World land known as Fillory, which a Sorites of Siblings periodically visits (the parallels with C. S. Lewis's Narnia are worked out in considerable detail). Quentin's longing to go to Fillory is (too efficiently) calibrated into his anhedonic, contrarian personality, and serves as a constant reminder to him that life on planet Earth is not a Story, it is only storyable, and that you have to believe in the storyableness of who you think you are to succeed at disappointment management down here, dying. His discovery that Brakebills is real, that there is a Story within of powers and doings and enablement, generates a cognate awareness that Fillory must, also, be real.

Brakebills and the doings of its profs and Young Adults take up much of The Magicians, and not all of it exhausts itself in the first telling, despite the accusations of excessive clarity I've been making. The incursion of a kind of profound demon into a classroom (it is properly memorable, as the superb final pages of the novel partly turn on the reader's remembering it clearly) strikes a note that seems to be too soon dropped. And the long sequence in which Quentin and others are transfigured into geese and fly south to the Antarctic to further their education—it is a direct and loving homage to a similar sequence in T. H. White's original version of The Sword in the Stone (1938)—also seems to stop short; and it may be that the clarity of Quentin's goose-psyche is just a tad too easy to understand. But these two sequences, which could be described as masterly, only emphasize the angst-and-elevenses control freakery of the main line of narrative.

The ultimate transit to Fillory is equally competent, and the experiences of Quentin and his Companions in the troubled Land—for Fillory has long ago lost its monarch(s), the Siblings whose sojourns, as recounted in the original series, are now deep sunk in time—feel hollow to the eye, and the inhabitants of Fillory could be Mormons dressed up as Pluto for all I care, by now, because we are now getting into the low 300s of the text. We are now in the Deep Ruins of Fillory, where the lost crown (etc. etc.) may be hidden. A ruined orrery hoves into view and sinks below the dust-infested offing. Metamorphic creatures—they could be Plutos dressed up as Mormons for all I care—hove into view and are chopped into smithereens by the valiant crew. (Grossman does violence very well, in a really fast, chained-macro way; but as nobody in the tale seems to care a jot, yet, about any of the deaths depicted, neither does the reader.) We reach p. 332.

A month passes in the world of the reader of the tale.

But we pick the book up again, and we reach p.333, deep underground, with Quentin and his Companions trekking through corridors deep sunk in time, utterly lost but soon to be found, and we read a sentence, and something changes. The sentence is, I suppose, pure description—"The walls were carved with ranks of crude marching figures in profile, thousands of them, each one holding a different totem: a palm leaf, a torch, a key, a sword, a pomegranate."—but something toggled in my mind's eye, and I was there. I was in the story at last. I think I know why. I think Lev Grossman had finally written a sentence he didn't own, a sentence which meant more than he could say, a sentence of pure Story, indistinguishable from magic. And the story somersaults suddenly into the Walpurgisnacht reversals and elatedness it so desperately needed at this point, but which I could not believe Schoolmarm-Apollo Grossman could ever forget himself enough to permit. The game of the book turns from checkers to chess on a Wild Board.

There is little more to tell that is not spoiler, and as The Magicians depends for its final impact on a sense that the entire plot has shoulder-surfed itself like the phoenix, spoilers will be regretfully eschewed. Enough perhaps to note that the heart of the terror of the book—for in the end it is grown-up enough to be called a tale of terror—lies in a very clear presentation of the nature of the beast. Terror in The Magicians is the Prayer Answered.

Terror (look around) is to get what you asked for.

Comments

Posted by Gregory Feeley at November 9, 2009 4:56 PM:

I agree with Clute that the early chapters set in Fillory are the novel's weakest, and that the "superb" final scenes (which he does not otherwise describe) are the book's best. There is, to say only this, a corridors-of-time frisson to those final chapters that anyone who loves Wolfe's Book of the New Sun will respond to.

Posted by nanachan707 at November 20, 2009 9:42 PM:

before I stumbled upon this review I was seriously in danger of believing there was something wrong with me for thinking the book didn't live up to the short reviews that prompted me to buy it in the first place. my impression is that Grossman doesn't believe his own story, he doesn't buy into the "magic crap" and so what initially seemed like a powerful idea turns out to nothing. the storyline fluctuates between peaks of action that draw the reader's interest for a short period of time before plundering back to pages and more pages of *nothing*. if it weren't for grossman's wonderful prose I would have probably dropped it half through.
I enjoyed the end - it was almost like opening "the magicians" and finding another book inside - but sadly I don't think I will recommend it to anyone...

Posted by James Goodrum at November 23, 2009 5:17 AM:

A small note: the scene with the geese did not appear in the original version of T.H. White's Sword in the Stone, but was shoehorned into the 1958 omnibus edition of the Once and Future King books. The scene was from the (then) unpublished final novel in the series, The Book of Merlyn. Because of this revision, later editions of the omnibus (which include The Book of Merlyn) contain repetition of this scene.

Otherwise, an excellent review.

Posted by CS at November 28, 2009 3:46 AM:

Great review. I felt like Grossman was so interested in Americanizing and hipifying his version of Hogwarts, that it ended up without a soul. Further, for Grossman to pick Narnia, a fragile fantasy world at best, to "bring down to size" seemed somehow cheap and tawdry. On the plus side, he captured his characters apathy so well, it was contagious. By pg 332 I was ambivalent about the whole affair.

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John Clute (jclute@gmail.com) has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His novel Appleseed (2001) was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. His most recent book is Canary Fever, his fourth collection of reviews and essays. He is currently working on a third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.