Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I think it appropriate to begin my commentary of The Magicians the same way I'll end it: by telling you that it's a whole lot of fun, and definitely worth your reading time. Flaws abound, but get over it; if your reading extends past Harry Potter and genre epic fantasy you'll read The Magician's, laugh, enjoy, and on some level (albeit a very superficial one) be moved to some degree.

Quentin Coldwater is a high school overachiever with his sights set on Ivy League enrollment. His education takes a twist as he winds up at Brakesbills, a school for aspiring magicians. In addition to becoming a magician, he hopes to find that the fictional realm of Fillory from his childhood reading is as real as magic. At Brakebills he becomes what he was in high school: a great but still not standout student. He possesses neither the innate ease that his friend Eliot can perform magic with, nor the fey, god-like power of Alice, a fellow student of his class.

The language used in telling this story is perfect. Grossman employs a contemporary vernacular that is perhaps too intelligent and trending for the nerdy kids using it, but one that feels right to the reader. More than any other aspect it is the speech, both dialogue and monologue that makes the work feel real; as if it is all plausible and really happening in our world. The prose feels kitschy, yet there is an art to what is written; Grossman scores major style points with his prose.

We learn what it is like to train to be a magician in today’s world and the horror that there is nothing to do with your magical abilities of any remote interest to anyone (least of all the magician) once you have completed your studies. The elaborate exposition focuses on Quentin and his magical fraternity of friends as they stumble into adulthood. The plot seems to hinge on a point where entrance to Fillory, a magical secondary world as laid down by C.S. Lewis verbatim in Chronicles of Narnia, becomes a real opportunity. But before we go to Fillory ( "We! Are! Going! To! Fill! O! Reeeeeee!" If you’ve read the book you smiled there too...) lets get back to that stumbling…

The book unrelentingly harps on virtually all the characters alcoholism. Drinking is indeed a culture in many American educational institutions but the kids at Brakebills could possible give the University of Georgia a run for their money. The theme is repetitive and over-indulged to the point where we think these kids can’t do much anything until they had a sip of something. Further more, all the students are winos… I found this point not only incongruous with collegiate drinking (admittedly taking into account only my own experience due to a higher-than-beer-or-cheap-booze-price, weaker overall effect, and sophistication of taste) but wholly unbelievable as at some point it felt like the school was in fact sponsoring these benders. To think what they accomplished by being hammer 24/7 it does make you wonder what they could have done, should they ever be sober. By the time Quentin and Eliot upgrade to illicit drugs I was only surprised they hadn’t gotten there sooner. The collegiate experience felt real—as if I know what magical college should feel like—except that no one got kicked out or put on probation for chronic alcoholism and the social problems that arise from such an affliction. Cause you get kicked out of school for that kinda thing…

In addition to campus wide drinking bouts that would awe Andre the Giant and Ernest Hemingway, all the students at Brakebills sleep with all the other students (and at least one case, a teacher too). The small group of primary characters eventually felt like the cast of a white-washed TV sitcom, where all players are attractive, live on the same street, party at the same bars, and then have drunken indiscriminate sex with anyone else on their street; regardless of gender it would seem… At least with sex, as opposed to drinking, there are consequences to deal with that yield emotional maturity and character growth; the drinking only beget hangovers that were promptly cured with three more glasses of wine.

Drinking to excess and sexual promiscuity are certainly standard college fair, but damn… apparently I was a prude in undergrad and grad school.

With a quarter of the book remaining events do take an odd twist and the novel becomes a genuine epic fantasy quest book as we finally get to enter Fillory. This change of direction isn’t necessarily bad, but to me this last portion either felt rushed or the previous three-quarters were prolonged. The time spent in Fillory is as clichéd and generic as any other genre fiction, albeit infused with a modern attitude and Grossman’s ever-present smart ass sense of humor.
The cast is awesome: a bunch of kids who can out drink Jackie Gleason and W.C. Fields back-to-back and whose sexual exploits make Ramses II look virginal. Life lessons, love, loss and enough tween-age angst abound to the point that these emo kids might call bullshit, and yet all I can say overall is, it's a whole lot of fun, and definitely worth your reading time. Consider this a glowing recommendation.

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