Yes, you get a book review of a four year old book. But, it’s free. Spoilers. What you need to know: the magicians of the title are a handful of America’s bright but directionless teenagers, lifted from their daily lives and transported to Brakebills, a college for magicians in upstate New York. There they fight, drink, sleep around, moan about how directionless they are in the way most of America’s generation Y and millennials seem to, and eventually discover that in fact Fillory (read: Narnia) is real. These people are Harry Potter if Harry Potter coped with his angst through cynicism, sarcasm, and eye-rolling, like real humans.
On the first pass, what this is is a life-is-so-hard-for-the-middle-class-oboe-lessons-and-vacations-to-Aruba-don’t-satisfy-my-existential-hunger novel (like most short stories in the New Yorker, or every single movie about suburbia since The Burbs) eating a Narnia novel alive, and despite Grossman’s obvious fondness for Narnia there’s certainly something to that. Fortunately, Grossman seems a bit more aware than most: while, say, Revolutionary Road seems convinced that simply pointing out that middle-class existence is sterile and hopeless is itself a sage and worthwhile point, Grossman kicks things up an analytical level: we’re miserable because we’ve convinced ourselves that our lives should be better than they can possibly be. Blame it on romantic comedies, on consumerism, on the fact that the children of the boomers are the most privileged generation in history, or whatever. The key is: this generation is not merely privileged: it’s also educated and smart, trained since birth to master the world around it, and its insecurities come simply because the world just won’t be mastered. Like CS Lewis said, the world is basically bent, and we are not strong enough to straighten it.
There’s a lot of self-flagellation here, a lot of young magicians who spend their lives eternally looking hopefully over the shoulder of whatever bright thing is in front of them, but I think that it’s not just derived from morbidity. What Grossman is warning us is that there’s no quick fix out of anomie once we’ve convinced ourselves, like Quentin has (like all of us have) that real life in Brooklyn just isn’t good enough.
And magic, as a marvelous speech partway through the novel informs us, is the last resort of those people who hurt so much that they are never satisfied with the fact that our desires alone cannot force reality into what we want it to be. Which, perhaps, is a apt metaphor for the sort of increasingly airy education in information slinging that got all of us into this mess in the first place.
All this means that poor old Narnia has to be eaten alive. The book’s also a deconstruction of all those old school seventies kid-fantasy novels of which Lewis is the wise old bearded progenitor. The Narnia books are basically, reassurances that there is a world of clear and certain moral order hovering just beyond our own full of valuable lessons about self-esteem and good sportsmanship which benevolent – and massively powerful, more powerful than most evil things – talking animals will soon bestow upon us. Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, and all the rest of them confirmed us in that fact. That world could not be gained without pain, it’s true. (Usually your mentor would be killed or your beloved taken away to the Summer Lands or Gollum would bite off your fingers or something.) But it was there. The world could be set right: the meaning we wanted could be plucked from the vine.
It’s not there in Fillory. In Fillory Aslan is dead. And in fact, he was killed by Martin Chatwin, who started out as a young bright eyed British naif who wanted perfection, badly. So badly that he kept looking but could not find, and turned inward and ravenous upon himself, and ultimately convinced himself that it would be obtainable if he could just deny the old disappointing world with enough might. And so he did, and so he became a monster.
The fascinating thing about Martin is that he’s the logical end of Quentin and all the rest of the snarky kids at Brakebills; he’s evil, but not unrecognizably so. H’s mostly just all this adolescent pain given force. Quentin believes in magic, Janet is bitterly, bitterly disappointed when Ember turns out not to be an omnipotent version of Dumbledore, and it’s the petulant and disappointed rage of these two folks, combined with the almost pitiful optimism of Penny and the insecurity of Josh and the laziness of Eliot (all just other manifestations of this same longing), which brings us to the final tragedies of the story.
A better comparison than Harry Potter is really Brideshead Revisited. There are plot symmetries – the drift from college to real life with vaguely disappointed aims – but also thematic consistency as well. What Brideshead is to me is an intimation that despite how messy it is, all the fecklessness and pain and suffering and drowning in alcohol is the only place where any sort of transcendence will be in this life found, because we live in a feckless and clumsy world and we are weirdly in our rough-edge ways so often the means by which we heal and are healed, even as we also bruise and are bruised. Quentin never really learns that lesson, but Charles, in Brideshead, does, even though it hurts him deeply.
Marilynne Robinson understand this better than anybody: that the magic of human transcendence is richer and more fuller and more meaningful for coming through the dull and dirty and mundane. And this is where Richard comes in. If you read the book a year ago you probably forgot about Richard. Richard is boring but he’s also the only character in the entire book who is not ultimately self-destructive because he’s the only one who does not need Fillory to be perfect. He can decide not to go on a quest, because he’s reasonably happy with his life back home in New York, while the rest end up broken and bloody on the floor of Ember’s Tomb. He may be the only adult. And that might be why magicians cannot be adults; for adults glory must come filtered and cracked, and children (and magicians) crave perfection too much. This is melancholy, but so is life, often. The trick is to love it for the tarnish.