Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Magicians (The Magicians, #1) by Lev Grossman

Quentin Coldwater is at the precipice that has life has been leading to.  He's incredibly smart and about to have his interview for entrance into an Ivy League school.  It's what is expected and yet after all of these years of hard work, it feels somehow anticlimactic.  Quentin is then offered the opportunity he never thought existed - a chance to attend the exclusive Brakebills - a school for modern magicians.  Brakebills represents everything he's always secretly wanted an escape from the mundane. For years Quentin has been re-reading fantasy novels about the magical world Fillory and while it may all be a story, Brakebills offers him the chance to closest to the the dream world he's always dreamed of visiting.

The Magicians sets itself up to be a cross between The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and Harry Potter.  It has young adults going to a magical academy and then traveling to a fantastical world in search of a quest.  The problem with Grossman's work is that it has none of the delight of either series and is filled with characters who are self involved,  who seem to delight in wallowing and are incredibly selfish.  Grossman tries to to give the impression that his characters are sophisticated yet they wade through life with such self generated disillusionment it makes it impossible to relate to them, let alone like them.  In 420 pages, not one of Grossman's characters is even remotely likable. It's not necessary for characters to be likely for to tell a good story but the reader should be able to relate to them.

Grossman should have called this book White people's problems, or even Western problems.  Quentin is filled with melancholy and despair. From the outside, everything in Quentin's life is perfect. He has class privilege, two parents who love him, and even acceptance to the exclusive Brakebills.  No matter what opportunity is offered to Quentin, he seems determined to never be content and at times seems miserable for the sake of being miserable. He is absolutely insufferable and as the narrator of the story, made if feel like wading through mud. I found that I could not feel empathy for Quentin's depression because at the end of the day,  Quentin is callous and pretentiousness. Quentin's proverbial position in life is that the glass is half empty and this wars against his hidden feelings of hope.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that Grossman doesn't really have a typical antagonist in this book despite the fact that Martin (one of the infamous Chatwin siblings) has become a monster.  The antagonist is Quentin's battle between his melancholy and hope that around the corner he will find something shiny to at least divert him from his feelings of sadness.

There's absolutely no character progression in The Magicians.  When we first meet Quentin, he is 17 years old and by the time the book ends, he is almost in his mid twenties.  During that time period, Quentin has been trained as a magician, left his life with his parents behind, travelled to a magical world, defeated the equivalent of a magical beast, watches as his first lover died while he lay helpless and finally engaged on a quest to find a magical beast.  That's a lot to happen to one person and yet Quentin reads exactly the same on the first page as he does the last page.  Having lived through even one of the aforementioned incidents should have been enough for some growth, let alone all of them.

Every woman Quentin meets he assigns value based on whether he wants to fuck her or not.  Women aren't really people to him but exist only to the degree that they excite his lust. Repeatedly when Quentin is in a close proximity to a woman, he has to caution himself not to look at her breasts.
December slid by on silent runners, in a sleepless dream of constant toil. The work had lost all connection to whatever goal it was supposed to be accomplishing. Even Quentin’s sessions with Professor Sunderland lost their spark. He caught himself staring bleakly at the radiant upper slopes of her achingly full and gropable breasts when he knew he should be devoting himself to far more pressing technical issues like correct thumb position (pg 69-70)
Quentin's  longest relationship in The Magicians is with Alice, who is a shy but extremely talented magician.  He refuses to acknowledge his dependency on her throughout their relationship at Brakebills and when they leave, he treats her like an anchor who constantly spoils his fun.  Alice quickly moves from being his girlfriend to a mother figure because she doesn't think that drinking all night, each and every night, is a legitimate way for an adult to pass time.  Quentin doesn't even pause to think about the fact that Alice actually forestalled her education in order to be with him during his stage of excessive over indulgence. He is a child while she stands as a woman.  When he ultimately cheats on Alice with Janet, it is only then that he begins to even contemplate what Alice means to him.  Alice does not forgive and instead has sex with Penny, a fellow magician and Quentin actually has the nerve to get angry. When Quentin cheated he blamed Janet and the booze, refusing to take any kind of personal responsibility and when Janet slept with Penny, rather than acknowledging his role in that interaction, all he can think about his hurt and his pain.   It sets Alice up to be a toy that Quentin now only wants because another kid has started playing with it.  In the end, Alice sacrifices herself to save Quentin's life thus giving purpose to his melancholy at last.

While Alice may be Quentin's longest lasting love interest she isn't his only one. No one forced Quentin into Janet's bed and yet he positions her as this whore who had the nerve to tempt him away from his beloved Alice.  Janet becomes the Jezebel to Alice's Madonna.  Each smile Janet makes from this point on Quentin believes is filled with such a wickedness that it induces hatred in him. Where Alice is quiet and reserved, Janet is loud, shrill and a "howling cunt".

 Quentin's first love Julia doesn't fare any better.  The moment Quentin gets into Brakebills, he pretty much forgets Julia's existence.  He sees this as punishment for Julia having the nerve to choose someone else as her boyfriend. Even after Julia tracks him down and she's clearly in some serious trouble because of her experimentation with magic, Quentin barely gives her a second thought.  He clearly doesn't value their friendship but given that Quentin doesn't value women, this isn't surprising.

The only LGBT character in this story is Elliot and really, he's just as bad as Quentin. Elliot has transitory relationships with men but doesn't have a romantic partner per say.  Elliot spends most of his time affecting an air of aloofness that is fraudulent at it seems. Elliot may spend a lot of time around Janet but his primary relationship seems to be with Quentin.  For some reason, Elliot labours under the assumption that he needs Quentin and they are partners in their mission to pickle their livers.  Grossman never really explains why Elliot is drawn to Quentin, particularly given how different their lives and frame of references are.  They have nothing in common beyond magic and barely spend any time discussing it.  Elliot, unlike Quentin ,has had a hard life.  Being gay in a homophobic world means that Elliot has never really known true acceptance.
My dad doesn’t know what happened. He thinks he chewed too much dip before I was conceived, and that’s why I ‘di’n’t come out reg’lar.’ ” Eliot stubbed out his Merit in a glass ashtray balanced precariously on the glossy wooden hull and lit another one. “They think I’m at a special school for computer geeks and homosexuals.
“That’s why I don’t go home in the summertime. Henry doesn’t care. I haven’t been home since I started here.
“You probably feel sorry for me,” he went on airily. He wore a dressing gown over his regular clothes, which gave him a shabby princely look. “You shouldn’t, you know. I’m very happy here. Some people need their families to become who they’re supposed to be. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But there are other ways to do it.” (pg 53)
It makes sense to me that Elliot tries to affect an air of insouciance and why he drinks to avoid the reality of how homophobic the world is.  His own family thinks that he is some sort of mistake. Other than Alice, who lost her older brother, Elliot is perhaps the only character whose sadness makes sense, even though it makes him yet another LGBT character with a tragic backstory.

Given who Quentin is, I don't really understand how he is able to draw so many people into his orbit. Penny and Quentin are both tested for entry into Brakebills at the same time but Quentin is able to progress faster.  Penny's response to Quentin being moved ahead of him is to simply show up and punch him.  This fight comes out of nowhere and is explained by Penny feeling abandoned by Quentin.  To be abandoned one would assume a relationship exists but that is not the case.  Even more baffling is Penny seeking out Quentin and his friends when he finds a button which has the ability to transport them to Fillory.  Grossman knows that the writers device he uses to get everyone to Fillory is ridiculous and so even has Quentin wonder why Penny would seek him out, or refer to him as a friend.

There are a few characters of colour in The Magicians but they are side characters at best.  Similarly, disabled characters get the same treatment. Quentin being the horrible asshole that he is refers to Gretchen as "the gimp". Gretchen simply tells people that her magic comes from her leg.  It's bullshit and all of the characters know it's bullshit but no one is is a decent enough human being to think about what how being called a slur makes Gretchen feel.

The Magician easily could have cut 100 pages and still be a coherent book.  All of the time spent at Brakebills was completely overwritten and unnecessary.  They spent four years there to learn magic that didn't turn out to be helpful when it was time to go to Fillory.  I struggled to read The Magicians, and even when pacing picked up when the characters reached Fillory, I was so overly fed up, that I had reached the point of no return with the level of irritation that I felt.  I'm fine with characters being unlikable but Quentin and his crew felt two dimensional as they struggled with unbearable lightness of being. Grossman simply didn't give us a reason to care about any character.

I'll be honest and admit that I chose to read The Magician because we are currently covering the television show based on this series.  The Magicians (the television show) has many problems but at least it doesn't actively bore me.  Grossman's characters aren't so much depressed, as invested in melancholy as a way of life and filled with a level of self importance that belies their actual skill set in any realm.  At times, The Magician is almost torturous to read through and there is no pay off in the end because Quentin only becomes more insufferable with his manpain and isolation.  I cannot see this series getting any better, so do yourself a favor, and just stick with the tv show.