John Fowles’ The Magus is one-third to half again as long as it should be; that it is among the most uneven novels I’ve read is, I think, a consequent of length. At places its greatness nearly overwhelms, while in others melodramatic banality utterly underwhelms. I think the latter is a symptom of length and the necessity of having numerous reversals of character psychology. Each time we think the narrator, Nicholas, has uncovered the truth of the characters’ interactions, yet another layer emerges. Over time this became tedious, as declarations of love were made—again—only to have me glance at the thick stack of pages remaining and know without even needing to guess that the would-be lovers are not about to sail off the Greek island, back to England, and embark on raising two kids in the suburbs. Incidentally, this problem does argue well for something like the Kindle if for no other reason than not having a page count might maintain suspense, especially because so many sections in The Magus felt like they heralded “The End” only to have the marathon continue to the point of punishment.
The Magus begins with the end of a love affair between Nicholas and Alison, which coincides with a strange offer for Nicholas to teach at a boys’ school on a Greek remote island. The offer is taken and the affair ends, or perhaps the other way around, as it’s hard to track the order of events in a novel where so much and so little happens. Causes and effects become entangled somewhere towards the middle, when you lose track of what’s known and what isn’t and who has declared love and retracted it and who will again. Much of this is intentional: Nicholas takes the job and is entreated by a strange man who would be named Prospero if the Shakespeare allusion weren’t too obvious. Instead his name is Conchis, and he runs a game/theater on Phraxos, which appears to be a fictional island. I’m willing to roll with the premise, though I’ve yet to run into a megalomaniacal rich person who wants to play twisted emotional games with real people, which should be relatively easy given Seattle’s proximity to Microsoft. But I’ll assume that such people exist and that they have enough manipulation for 656 pages.
Like Nicholas, I kept getting caught on an unseen bramble when I came to passages like “The old man had surrendered” (359) or “‘It’s how you made me feel'” (363), only to know that all wasn’t well because of aforementioned stack of 300 pages left. All that is after a woman declares, “‘I don’t know what I feel, Nicholas. Except that I want you to feel like that'” (355). Ah, yes: the hardest travel of all is to the heart, but The Magus is a travel novel for what happens to its characters and because it would be an excellent companion—it’s fairly compact but very long and would be marvelous in exotic places like the ones it describes. In addition, you would have some opportunity to forget or forgive the more ridiculous passages and savor the meatier ones. The melodrama wouldn’t gall as much, and the overly cute bits could be taken with the seriousness they appear to shoot for. The Magus is clever but takes too many pains to be clever: I understand the commentary it makes implicitly and explicitly about the shimmering, leaping, uncertain border between life and art, but I just wish it weren’t so damn annoying about it. And that the characters would just get it on or break it off already.
Finally, on a personal note, the oddest thing about The Magus for me was the eerie resonance some passages had with some of the writing I’ve been working on. Especially in first third of The Magus, I kept having to shake off the bizarre feeling of being preceded by an author I’d never read and knew little about. And yet my novel is done, and so to find aspects of it in The Magus unsettles. But I do think I avoided many of its pitfalls and kept some of the qualities that made The Magus delightful.