“Persuader” by Lee Child is actually a modern-day fairy tale

At first I was going to write a post about how ridiculous Persuader is: this is a novel in which not once but twice the protagonist somehow outwits opponents who have guns pointed at him. In both circumstances, the obvious, logical thing for the antagonists to do is shoot Jack Reacher, but instead they do the stupid talking villain thing, like no one would do in real life. One of those opponents is so stupid that he throws his gun away in order to engage in hand-to-hand combat with 6’5″ Reacher, like no one would ever do. But this level of inanity, or inanity interpreted in terms of realism, must point to something else, much as the implausibility of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects made me realize that it isn’t trying to be realistic.*

Persuader is a fairy tale about a knight who is caught between the dark forces of chaos, evil, and greed on the one side and the grinding powers of bureaucracy—FBI and military—on the other. He’s a kind of small-c conservative who is interested in the intensely personal and where it intersects with larger forces of darkness, chaos, and excessive order. Chaos is bad because of the way it destabilizes relationships; excessive order is bad in the Reacher universe because it inhibits Reacher from inflicting his own moral code on the universe, and it’s a universe where the bad guys are conveniently universally bad and the good guys are conveniently universally good.

So what myth, or myths, are we getting from Persuader? That the military is sacrosanct and its training superhuman; that bureaucracy is stupid and the individual not; and perhaps most of all that we are less part of a network than we are a making, doing, acting, achieving supernode. This last is a particularly appealing idea, like life after death, and also in most ways a wildly inaccurate one, which is where the mythic elements of Persuader (and maybe the other Reacher books) come into play.

The novel feels paradoxically fascistic and libertarian at the same time, with different strains predominating at different moments, like someone who cannot quite decide between Judaism and atheism, but Reacher is a person of the immediate moment, not of the mind, so he never considers bigger pictures. His is not philosophy. He does think a little about his own past but not in any systematic way. He likes the specifics of gadgets but not of culture. What details he knows (about guns, say) tells as much as those that are superfluous.

The writing is not especially bad for its genre but not especially good either. Towards the beginning, the narrator (likely Reacher) says things like, “Connecting the pillars was a high double gate made from iron bars bent and folded and twisted into fancy shapes.” “Fancy shapes:” that’s a Reacher-like phrase, as he’s too busy kicking ass or whatever to know the term. “I” and “it” have to be the most common words in the novel, apart from the basics. College students sound like they’re described by someone’s hard-scrabble dad (“He had long messy hair and was dressed like a homeless person” or “He was majoring in some kind of contemporary art expression thing that sounded a lot like finger painting to me.”) We never really get out of this basic register.

Often the novel is just boring: “It showed me she and Eliot had at least five guys who would follow them to hell and back.” We can do better than the cliché but we don’t. Not here, not in many places.

How Jack Reacher was built” persuaded me to read Persuader, but one Child novel is enough, especially because Lanchester says it’s the best of them. Overall, the myth of military invincibility does more harm than good, and I prefer my supermen in different guises, perhaps with some weaknesses and humanity.

Still, the novel is not as offensively written as Camino Island, but I still have no desire to read another, ever, and love for Lee Child tells me something important about the person who loves his work (just as someone’s admiration for Elmore Leonard tells me something important, and positive, about theirs). As always I’m open for suggestions and if you have them leave them in the comments.

I did read to the end and remember very little, apart from the plot’s many absurdities. I’m surprised I haven’t seen more analyses of thrillers and similar works in terms of fairy tale and fantasy, which is what a lot of these works really are. Are they out there? I can’t imagine Child being a popular target for academics today, but perhaps there’s work I don’t know of.

When I teach Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, students sometimes ask how I (or someone) figure out that the story probably isn’t meant to be interpreted literally. Part of the answer involves implausibility combined with coherent writing: If something is well-done but seems ridiculous, it may be that symbolism or other non-realistic modes are involved, and if we as readers suspect that’s the case, we should start asking why and how.

Briefly noted: The Magician’s Land — Lev Grossman

(For background see this 2009 post on The Magicians and this less positive post on its sequel, The Magician King. Without those for context this post won’t make sense, and, as with most books towards the end of a series, the latest only matters to those who have read the earlier.)

At the beginning of The Magician’s Land we see a metaphor for post-2008, or maybe post-1973, diminished expectations, when things that are supposed to happen to other people happen to us (“It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job and a depression when you lose yours”):

Stuff like this was for people on the fringes of the magical world, people scrabbling to get in, or who’d lost their footing somehow and slipped out of the bright warm center of things, all the way out to the cold margins of the real world. All the way out to a strip mall in Hackensack in the rain. Things like this weren’t for people like him.

But they are, as literature reminds us. It can always get worse and at times the only thing we change is our reaction. Quentin is getting better at changing his reactions to circumstances and one could read the trilogy as a commentary on his shifting ability to do precisely that. As an alternate reading, it could be seen as the latest in a long line of works asking what is real: “This all seemed a hell of a lot more real than it had half an hour ago.”

MagiciansLandWelcome to the desert of the real. One professor in grad school, who otherwise took many dubious positions to the point of seeming like a character in an academic novel, liked to say that the real is what hurts. It’s a good working definition. I’d add that the real is what hurts or what works. The latter explains much of what’s wrong with philosophy, and its literary studies branches.

Quentin has also taken on some of the dullness of middle age, and though in the process he has gained the loss of most of his early petulance. Many of the description, including descriptions of family and friends, still resonate and hurt:

When he thought of his parents it was almost like they were old lovers, so distant now that he couldn’t even remember why his link to them had once seemed to real and urgent. They’d managed the neat trick of bringing up a child with whom they had absolutely nothing in common, or if there was something none of them had risen to the challenge of finding it.

Friends are arguably the family you choose, but friends are also hard to sustain in world of growth, evolution, and changing circumstances: people must grow together or apart, and in many cases friendships do not survive circumstances. One could be sad or stoic about such things.

The book raises other questions. What do the many odd metaphors and pop-culture references mean (“He’d been a good person, or good enough, but mostly what he’d showed Quentin was how to move through the universe while disturbing it as little as possible, and how to compile and maintain the world’s most complete collection of Jeff Goldblum movies on Blu-ray, apart, presumably from Jeff Goldblum’s” or “fairies thought all this military stuff was pretty silly, but they went along with it for the same reason that fairies ever did anything, namely, for the lulz”)? They undercut fantasy tropes but also make the characters highly associative. Another sample: “It was like a box with a whole herd of Schrödinger’s cats in it. With a little magical know-how you could alter the order in which your cards came out; with a little more you could guess what your opponent was going to play before she played it” (note that this comes just a few pages after Quentin explains his poverty—why not just do this in Vegas?).

Other notes: There is a MacGuffin. The initial plot about Quentin needing money seems unlikely; he has long had the same problem as the girls on Girls: he needs to get a job, or find a purpose greater than himself. Leading a generative life is important and yet we often get little guidance in this regard. One purpose of novels could be to give us guidance to leading a generative life. Novels show both failure and success, and arguably occasional transcendence towards a quasi godhood rarely if ever achieved by those of us outside books.

I would argue that Quentin succeeds or seems to at the end of The Magician’s Land—attend to that language about bridges and other connectors—but the possibility of success is there from the beginning, when Quentin finds himself in a bookstore, and “he felt at home in a bookstore. [. . . ] It didn’t matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home.” Bookstores represent what is effectively infinite possibility: they are like the Neitherlands, the world between the worlds.

I can’t get excited enough about the book to write extensively about it, which may say something about the book or may say something about this writer. Nonetheless, here is an interview on Vox. Here is Slate. Here is The Atlantic. Here is Grossman explaining how not to write your first novel. I think he said in my interview with him that publishing as an industry is no fair and fairly random, which the linked essay perhaps supports.

Note: This is based on a review copy.

Lev Grossman’s The Magician King arrives:

… alas, you won’t see any further comments on it until August 9—the publication date.

I’ve been getting more interesting books from publishers lately: Carolyn Cooke’s Daughters of the Revolution is sitting next to my bed, half-read and still promising, and now The Magician King.

Lev Grossman's The Magician King arrives:

… alas, you won’t see any further comments on it until August 9—the publication date.

I’ve been getting more interesting books from publishers lately: Carolyn Cooke’s Daughters of the Revolution is sitting next to my bed, half-read and still promising, and now The Magician King.

An interview with Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians and Codex, Part I

Lev Grossman’s book tour is just about finished, and I caught up with him at Changing Hands in Phoenix on June 10 to talk about The Magicians. In the novel, Quentin Coldwater is a bright and unhappy high school student searching for meaning, happiness, and a place in the world—which he thinks he’ll find when he receives an invitation to Brakebills, a college for magic. Unlike Hogwarts, however, classes are a grind, students are filled with angst, and sexual politics are everywhere.

As I wrote about the novel:

The Magicians is a surprise and delight: its language is not overly showy and yet often contains an unexpected surprise, especially at the ends of sentences, as this early description shows: “Quentin was thin and tall, though he habitually hunched his shoulders in a vain attempt to brace himself against whatever blow was coming from the heavens, and which would logically hit the tall people first.” Until the last clause, one could be reading any novel, fantasy or otherwise, but saying that a blow from heaven would hit the tall first gives us Quentin’s personality in a single line, and yet its ideas are spun coherently across the entire novel.

The following is an edited transcript, and any links were added by me after the interview:

Jake Seliger: I first read about The Magicians on John Scalzi’s blog, “Whatever.” I don’t know if you’ve met him or not, but he wrote about it and I thought “That’s exactly the book I want to read.”

Lev Grossman: He runs that features “The Big Idea.” I actually wrote that. I ran into him at the World Con—that is the convention—and we got to chatting. He’s a friendly fellow. He let me post something on the blog.

JS: I’m really glad you did. Not every book is one I’ve really loved. He posted about a book called Mistwood, which I thought was okay, but flat in a way. The premise is really interesting—instead of talking from the premise of a human who gains special powers and becomes more than she is, it discusses a summoned creature or magical being who’s becoming more human and doesn’t want to become human.

LG: That sounds like a great idea.

JS: Yeah. The execution is one I didn’t love. It was a first novel. It was a lot of fun. As far as The Magicians goes, I was struck that there’s this repeated expectation or hope of finding another world, that of course gets fulfilled. Even really early on, on page 8, Quentin says, when his interviewer’s “back was turned Quentin would stumble on a mysterious cabinet or an enchanted dumbwaiter or whatever, through which he would gaze with wild surmise on the clean breast of another world.” So he’s looking for these enchantments, and it seems like by the end of the novel that he finds or we find that we either make our enchantments or don’t make our enchantments. Do you agree? Or is my reading off?

LG: No, I think that’s fair enough. I think that for a very long time—an embarrassingly long time—instead of solving problems, I tended to buffer them. Something would come up and I would think, ‘Well, that sucks,’ but I’ll stick it in the buffer, and when I get to Narnia, I’ll basically clear out the whole buffer. And not literally Narnia, but I would decide that if a certain that was coming up—if I got into college, for example—it would solve everything and I would never have any problems again. So I would ever really solve problems: I would put them off and lay them away for a time when they would get solved by the course of events.

JS: That’s funny because it makes it sound like a very passive kind of action. “The course of events” would solve them rather than “I would solve them.”

LG: Oh, it is very passive. I was a very passive person for a very long time. I didn’t really understand how to engage with reality. I didn’t really grapple with it on a basic level. I just let it roll over me. As a result, I made a huge number of mistakes that I wish I hadn’t made. Events made them for me.

JS: I guess that got transposed to the novel.

LG: Yeah, well, writing The Magicians was in a way working through my acceptance of the fact that I never would get to Narnia. Quentin essentially does, and what happens to Quentin is that his problems come with him.

JS: Many of them.

LG: Yeah. And it turns out that action is required of him, in fact, to solve them. Or accept the fact that they’re insolvable.

JS: It seems that’s where a lot of the rhetoric about reality comes from. And not only the reality parts of it, but the two worlds or multiple worlds idea. One of the things I found really intriguing when I got to the end of the novel is when Emily Greenstreet [whose brother dies by becoming a Niffin and who has an affair with Professor Mayakovsky, leading him to be banished to Antarctica] reappears. There’s this wonderful line, and we learn that “In different ways they had both discovered the same truth: that to live out childhood fantasies as a grown-up was to court and wed and bed disaster.” It’s an intriguing sentence because the sexual language doesn’t seem like a mistake. Part of the issue is that incorporating sexuality in life is important and becomes a proximate cause because that’s what actually gets them to Fillory. Alice goes and sleeps with Penny [as revenge for Quentin sleeping with Janet].

LG: Obviously in this book I’m confronting a powerful literary forebear, namely C.S. Lewis. You only do that if you truly truly love the forebear in question. But, one of the things I find maddening about his books is this sense that magic and wonder and ultimately meaning are not compatible with sexual maturity. He’s so in love with childhood that he imagines that there is no such thing as magic once you get older, or if there is, then it’s a debased, ignorant, evil kind of magic, like the magician in The Magician’s Nephew. And I wanted to explore the idea—as Philip Pullman did before me—that coming of age, becoming a whole adult sexual being, entails not a loss of magic but a different kind of magic. A richer kind of magic.

JS: And one that doesn’t always go particularly well, either in the real world or in the novel itself. It seems to me that Quentin in Alice become almost victims of their own sexual politics, in a sort of game theory way. When Quentin sleeps with Janet, which he knows he shouldn’t’ve done but he does anyway, and then they get in this tit-for-tat—

LG: Right. No pun intended. Yeah, it’s true. Things turn out to be very much less than zero sum. It involves taking on a certain kind of risk that you do not have in childhood and accepting that risk.

JS: And the sense of risk is very real in the novel because people die and there are rules in it. The risk feels real that often times in fantasy novels it doesn’t because you know that good is somehow going to triumph in the end even if it’s not complete.

LG: The moment where I attempted in an almost self-conscious way to bring that into the book is when the beast appears in the classroom.

JS: Right. That’s exactly what I was referring to because it’s unexpected, and the teachers don’t know what’s going on. And then there’s speech—I’m pretty sure it’s Dean Fogg who gives it—where he basically says, “There are things out there we don’t know, we don’t understand.”

LG: I want it to feel less safe than Hogwarts. And that was one of the ways I tried to announce that. Here’s a being which is not even evil, necessarily, in a way that is comprehensible to us. It’s almost arbitrary.

JS: It’s chaotic or indifferent.

LG: Which is almost more terrifying, in a kind of mustachio-twiddling villain. And I very much wanted there not to be a Gandalf-like figure, who is able to explain what happened and assume the risk for the kids. Fogg is just about as lost as they are.

JS: To me what’s interesting is in Lord of the Rings, Gandalf almost never has complete explanations. When he leads [The Fellowship] into the Mines of Moria, he doesn’t know what’s down there. That’s part of what reminded me of the beast and the Mines of Moria. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf doesn’t know everything. And he constantly says that—”I don’t necessarily know what’s going on,” and there’re conjectures and so forth, and that’s a lot of what the Council of Elrond is and some other places in the novel, where they’re always talking about what they don’t know and recognizing their own limitations.

LG: Yeah, that’s very true. I have a bad habit of underestimating Tolkien. He’s always better than I think he is—the Mines of Moria being a case in point.

JS: It’s somewhat dangerous talking to me about it because The Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite novels and I actually reread it about a month and a half ago, and this time around one thing that struck me is how funny it is, because they’re all these little jokes in there, and the relationship between Sam and Gollum is funny, and Pippin is ceaselessly getting in the way, and the relationship between Legolas and Gimli is very funny as well. Once they become friends, everyone is shocked at it: Galadriel goes, “This is a strange friendship!” People are constantly going, “An elf and a dwarf? This doesn’t make any sense!” and they just do their thing.

LG: It’s one of my major weaknesses as a fantasist. I never really came to—there’s almost no Tolkien in The Magicians

JS: There is that funny thing where Alice and Quentin are trying to get into the Physical Kids’ cottage—

LG: Right, right.

JS: —”speak, friend and enter.”

LG: It’s there. But I don’t really wrestle with Tolkien. I don’t understand him very well.

JS: How so?

LG: He’s just not easy pickings like Lewis is. Lewis wrote the Narnia novels—all of them—in the span of slightly over two years. And he’s an incredibly sloppy world builder, because Lewis’ threads are lying around all over the place.

JS: And you have Plover do some of the same things, especially when you describe the fifth novel. In The Magicians, Quentin describes the fifth Fillory novel as being unsatisfying because it just wanders off into nothing.

LG: Yeah. Plover wrote the second novel partly to plug the plot holes in the first one. Which was a vague allusion to The Magicians Nephew trying to explain what happens in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the White Witch came from, which only ends up introducing a whole bunch of other plot holes. And just sort of, it’s turtles all the way down.

JS: “It’s turtles all the way down.” It’s funny you say that because it seems like Quentin is always look for some version of reality or happiness or whatever, but he doesn’t find it because—this is going to sound kind of trite—but he doesn’t find it because it’s either within you, or it’s not, and it’s not going to be imposed externally.

LG: Yeah, and he’s looking for some sort of safe, closed system, where risk is eliminated.

JS: If you don’t have religion, it seems like you don’t have that anywhere.

LG: Yeah. Well, I’m not very qualified to talk about religion. But certainly, I think what he ultimately has to do is become tolerant of risk and loss and imperfection. He has a tendency to say, “Oh shit, well that went wrong. This world sucks. I’m going to find another world, where it’s better.” But of course, he’ll just run forever—if that’s what he wants.

JS: Yeah, and it’s a little bit—the last world we see in The Magicians is when he’s at this firm he’s not particularly happy at, just making money. And he’s sitting there just before he’s rescued once again. He says, “With the coming of the bitter late fall weather the air-conditioning had gone silent and the heaters had sprung to life, and huge nebulae of steam curled off them in abstract whorls: hypnotic, silent, slowly turning shapes that never stopped and never repeated themselves. Smoke signals sent by no one, to no one, signifying nothing.” It seems like that becomes a metaphor for what Quentin is going through. Do you read a lot of Melville? Or a lot about Melville?

LG: I’ve read Moby-Dick.

JS: In PierrePierre‘s a terrible novel, don’t read it—but there’s a funny section where the narrator announces, “Silence is the only Voice of our God.” James Wood describes Parker’s biography and how “[…] it is not until very late in his story that [Parker] considers Melville’s difficult relationship to his inherited faith, a relationship which is the absent, sunless center of all his greatest fiction, poetry, and letters.” The idea of that “absent center” in Melville is about God, and it seems like Quentin’s case is more about himself. I had a question in there somewhere, I just lost it along the way.

LG: I don’t disagree with what you’re saying—

JS: I think it’s that line, “Smoke signals sent by no one, to no one, signifying nothing.” He doesn’t pick up on that thread of his observation.

LG: He’s attempting to grapple with a world charged with mean and found it intolerably painful. He sought out a world from which meaning has been almost completely expunged—and therefore risk of any kind.

JS: Can you say more about the meaning being expunged?

LG: Well, when you talk about meaning you automatically head into a thicket of solecisms.

JS: That’s true, and maybe that’s part of reason why it’s interesting to talk about it, if one can.

LG: Yeah, but what I mean to say is that there are no stakes in that world. Nothing means anything to him.

JS: In Brakebills, or the corporate world?

LG: In the corporate world. He’s shuffling fungible papers and there’s just nothing at stake.

JS: So how do we if we are modern office workers and we don’t happen to have magic within us, find some things to be at stake.

LG: Yeah.

JS: You’re looking at me with an expression that says, “I have no fucking idea, why are you asking me this?”

LG: There should be an answer. And of course, the office he’s working in is my office, in the Time-Life Building, and the heaters are across the street—that’s the view from my window. Actually, I think they might not be any more, because I moved offices.

JS: To me it sounds hopelessly glamorous, living in New York and working in a very large office building, because New York itself seems glamorous. Maybe that’s ridiculous, and it’s like me looking at New York is like Quentin looking at Fillory.

LG: I don’t know. Well, I guess that’s fair. It has glamorous bits. It has good restaurants.

JS: You distinctly not—

LG: Well, you know, I’ve been there for a while. It’s very expensive, living in New York.

JS: That’s why I didn’t apply to grad schools there.

LG: And it’s causing me—one has to make great sacrifices to maintain a lifestyle there. Recently I’ve become very aware of that.

JS: Have you ever heard of a woman named Penelope Trunk, who writes a blog called Brazen Careerist?

LG: No.

JS: She’s written pretty extensively about her time in New York and why she decided to move from there, which are essentially the reasons you’re describing: the tremendous, tremendous expense of living there makes it impractical.

LG: I have a daughter from my first marriage. If my daughter didn’t live in Brooklyn, I’d probably leave.

JS: But Quentin is busy trying to run away from Brooklyn, at the beginning, and thinks that Brooklyn is tremendously boring and there’s no meaning in Brooklyn. Which is funny, because New York has this romantic ideal in the American imagination of being the center of things and moving to the big city. Quentin is already there and he’s not happy and he wants to move somewhere magical. And then he moves to somewhere magical and he finds out that it’s not as glamorous as he thought either.

LG: Yeah, it’s kind of like moving from Brooklyn to Manhattan. If you live in Brooklyn, everything’s happening in Manhattan.

JS: And when you live in Manhattan, I wonder where everything’s happening. At a cooler party than where you’re at?

LG: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s happening in L.A. I don’t know. It’s always somewhere else though.

JS: Right. And the chase of it doesn’t seem to work out.

LG: It’s always happening at the secret after party you weren’t invited to. That’s where the action is.

JS: Yeah. I have to ask a question: have you ever read a book called Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert?

LG: I started it, but I didn’t finish it.

JS: Really? I’m surprised, because it feels like Quentin is always searching for happiness, and he has this happiness rhetoric going on. And he’s thinking a lot about his own happiness. I mean, there’s one bit pretty early when it says, “He was experimenting cautiously with the idea of being happy, dipping an uncertain toe into those intoxicatingly carbonated waters. It wasn’t something he’d had much practice at.” As though you get better at being happy like you get better at baseball. “It was just too fucking funny. He was going to learn magic! He was either the greatest genius of all time or the biggest idiot. But at least he was actually curious about what was going to happen to him next.” It seems like there are a couple of things going on in the book there: one, this idea of happiness, and two, what’s going to happen next to him, as opposed to what is he going to make happen.

LG: Yeah, that’s true. I guess there’s a passiveness built into that. Honestly, that comes out of—if you read my blog enough, you’ll find me crapping on about depression. While I was writing this book, I was going through therapy for the first time, and I was kind of understanding a little bit about how challenging it is to be happy. It requires an effort to organize your psyche in such a way that happiness is possible. Being depressed is very, very easy. It’s a zero-energy state.

JS: It seems like Quentin doesn’t learn how to organize his psyche in that way. Although going to Fillory or having Alice die might make it considerably harder.

LG: Yeah, well, I think he needs to learn how to mourn. I want to say in the Freudian sense, although now I don’t remember exactly what happens in Mourning and Melancholia, but he needs to learn how to process loss and process grief, rather than having it just stop him cold. I think that’s a lesson that he learns at the end.

JS: It’s funny, because if he does learn that lesson at the end, I didn’t necessarily read it that way because to me it seemed like he was still somewhat passive because he’s gone back to this office, and until Julia shows up and they break his window down and say, “Quentin, you need to come with us—”

LG: Well, he could’ve stayed. My mother thinks that he’s having a hallucination and he’s committing suicide.

JS: Really?

LG: She said it as if it was the most natural thing in the world—”That’s what you meant, right? He’s killing himself, and they’re not really real.” I said, “No.”

JS: I definitely didn’t read that into it, if that’s the question.

LG: I found that disturbing, coming from my mother.

JS: Right. Well, it must be strange hearing all the various interpretations of your books, some of which you’ve now heard from me and some of which you’ve heard from others too. And if we are talking books, you mentioned you reacting to C.S. Lewis in a kind of Harold Bloomian way. Have you read The Anxiety of Influence?

LG: I have, or rather I’ve read about the first 50 pages, which is all that I found comprehensible. Once—

JS: Once the jargon starts, you check out?

LG: Once the Greek starts, I lost it. But I got a lot out of those pages, and I found them to be very true, and very smart.

JS: How so?

LG: This idea of mapping the Oedipal struggle onto literary forebears, I simply find it to be true. And I’m aware that I probably work that way in a more self-conscious way than a lot of writers. And I’m also conscious that as Bloom points out, when one works that way, one is rarely grappling with the literary forebear him- or herself, but rather a caricature of that person one creates oneself for the purpose of then knocking it down.

JS: Like a literary straw man.

LG: Yeah, sure. Just so you have something to push against.

JS: It seems like people have always been pushing against Shakespeare. And you have a line from The Tempest as your epigraph, which I didn’t actually look up—

I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book

What made you choose that? Or did it just sound cool?

LG: Number one, it sounded cool.

JS: That’s a good reason.

LG: It’s about renunciation. That’s the moment where Prospero decides, “I’ve passed the point of life where magic will be of use to me, and now I will return to terrestrial life,” you know, much as the children return from Narnia. And it’s a bit of a fake out, I guess, because it was never my intention to have Quentin give up magic for good. But I wanted him to confront that possibility very seriously.

JS: It’s interesting that you say that, because in giving up magic Quentin then feels as superior as he did when he originally took up magic. At the very end, he says, “To be honest, Quentin felt superior to anybody who still messed around with magic. They could delude themselves if they liked, those self-indulgent magical mandarins, but he’d outgrown that stuff.” Quentin is very touchy about status in the novel—

LG: Very, yeah.

JS: —just like people are in life. People are constantly jockeying for position: school, elsewhere, magically, sexually, and other hierarchies in the novel. Were you consciously shooting for this kind of status stuff and these kinds of status games, or were you just trying to represent the hyper-competitive? This is a somewhat dangerous question because I’m thinking forward ultimately towards a dissertation that might focus on signaling and status in novels—

LG: Really. That’s very interesting to me.

JS: How so?

LG: I’m very interested in that topic. Of course Quentin is a hyper-competitive individual. He’s not like a baseline human in that respect. He I think has a very tenuous grasp on his own self-esteem, and he’s always looking for ways in which he can rate himself above people around him.

JS: I wonder if having sex with Janet is part of that.

LG: Oh sure, yeah, God. I feel like, he must be very aware that—I think at that point, there’s a moment where Alice says, “You know Josh has slept with Janet.” I have a feeling that that fact went into his brain and kicked around for a while and he was like, “Are you kidding? Josh hit that? I have to be above Josh in some respect, and to do that, I want to sleep with Janet.”

JS: Of course, when they’re at Brakebills South, I believe Janet is involved in some of the orgies. But the sex at Brakebills South doesn’t seem to count, I guess.

LG: Yeah, but I think Quentin would’ve been upset if Alice were involved in that. But yeah, on some level—the idea that it doesn’t really count—I went back and forth as to whether that was realistic, or whether it was a bit—I don’t know.

JS: Which part was realistic?

LG: The idea that they would engage in these orgies. You know, I guess I went on in college, but I never got invited to those parties.

JS: Another one of those regrets?

LG: Yeah. The status thing. Status—this is getting way, way overly competitive—but realizing how obsessed I was with status was a big thing in therapy, where I had to deal with that.

JS: Well, the status thing is interesting to me because as far as I know, no one has tried to write any kind of study as to how it really functions in novels, but now that I’m more attuned to it, it seems to be going on all the time: between characters, and with characters up towards the reader. Quentin seems to be aware of this but seems to always view himself as low status. I have this comment about him feeling superior and looking down on those with magic, which feels to me very much like overcompensating.

LG: Yeah, I think he always feels both exalted and degraded, and he’s trying to hang onto the exalted part. He always suspects he’s being humiliated in some way. My wife and I actually play a game after we’ve gone out at a party or whatever, and we’ll try to identify as many status hierarchies that were in play in a given interaction as you can. Because there’s always multiple ones in play.

JS: Right. Which must be hard, because you have probably people jockeying for financial position, and artistic position, and sexual position, and probably others that one isn’t even aware of.

LG: Well, the bizarre thing is how completely differently men and women, or at least my wife and I, analyze these situations. I’ll say, “Oh, you know, this guy is a lot taller than that guy, and they must care a lot about that.” And Sophie says, “That’s baffling, that makes no sense.” And she’ll point out, “Oh, this person is pregnant and that person is pregnant and this person is engaged and that person is engaged,” and I’m sort of, “Well, so what?” But she would argue that for women that is a status marker.

JS: What is? Being pregnant or engaged?

LG: Yeah.

JS: That’s interesting. Did you ever read Neil Strauss’ book, The Game?

LG: I have to admit, I picked it up out of morbid curiosity. I didn’t read it through, but I leafed through it.

JS: So did I. In that, he talks about the endless status and peacocking things that go on. And there’s a part of me that wants to slip Quentin a copy of it and say, “Quentin, it’s okay.”

LG: Yeah.

JS: But he’s neurotic about some of the sexual aspects and the magical aspects, and they intertwine for him.

LG: Oh, yeah sure. Well, everybody—the most obvious status hierarchy that’s in play is who’s the better magician.

JS: The hierarchy thing gets interwoven with the power, and to go back to the Emily Greenstreet thing, when her and Quentin meet at the end, she goes, “They’re just kids!” And then there’s a funny little line, “Just thinking about that place now gives me the howling fantods.” I have no idea what a fantod is.

LG: That’s a David Foster Wallace expression. I think it’s taken from him.

JS: Yeah, well I’ve never actually loved his work, which might explain why I don’t know what a howling fantod is.

LG: I read it in David Foster Wallace, and only now does it occur to me that he probably made it up and it’s not a generally used idiom.

JS: Well, that’s words always get started. You use howling fantod and now maybe I’ll start using it on my blog or elsewhere, and now suddenly people know what a fantod is. [EDIT: my spellcheck didn’t flag the word “Fantod,” and the Oxford American Dictionary that comes with OS X 10.6 defines it as “a state or attack of uneasiness or unreasonableness : the mumbo-jumbo gave me the fantods. ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: of unknown origin.”]

LG: In retrospect I’m surprised the copy-editor didn’t flag it.

JS: Maybe she just thought it was a magical term. Anyway, it’s funny because she says, “They’re just kids with all that power.” It seems like the power there—all kids and all people have power in their own way, whether it’s sexual or whether it’s working on something. Kids have power over their bodies and their world: to be or to kill or to be killed, to work or not to work. And so, I don’t know, her complaint there about magic in particular seems like it starts to have a broader resonance. How do kids grow up and deal with whatever it is that they’re doing?

LG: Yeah, I suppose that’s true. To be honest, when I wrote that dialog, the only thing in my head was, “She’s completely right.” I mean, it’s insane the way that institution is run, and it’s amazing that the whole thing hasn’t erupted before now.

JS: What I started to expect when they got to Brakebills, is that probably if you gave a bunch of male teenagers unusual power, some of them would presumably try to rape or sexually harass some of the girls there. So I kept waiting for the administration not to know what to do about that. Like some combination of Anita Shreve’s Testimony and something else. But you never went that route.

LG: No, I know. And it’s entirely plausible I think to do so. Yeah. I didn’t go down that road.

JS: But the idea of teenagers having power, people in general having power, even if they don’t realize it—even without magic, teenagers have a certain amount of power, and part of what growing up seems to me to entail is learning whatever power you have and how you’re going to realize it.

LG: Yeah, well I think that’s very true.

JS: And that actually goes back to The Lord of the Rings, because in The Two Towers when Gandalf comes back, he says something like that to Gimli and Legolas and Aragorn: he says, “You guys have power of your own too, whether you realize it or not.” It’s this process of realization: it seems like Quentin sort of realizes he has power but doesn’t really still understand it or can’t grapple with it.

LG: Yeah, well, I think he’s very afraid to sort of embrace it. To accept it–I think it’s very difficult for him to accept that he is in fact a powerful being, a being who’s capable of action and very concerted action.

JS: Yeah. And it seems like he’s using magic to try and find reality. Really early in the novel, he says, “James opened the door. The cold air was a pleasant shock. It felt real. That was what Quentin needed: more reality. Less of this, whatever this was.” That word real just recurs over and over again in the novel. But I read that and wanted to say, “It seems to me that reality is wherever you are and whatever you make of it.”

LG: Yeah, I suppose. But that is a lesson that Quentin has yet to learn. He’d rather somebody else make it.

JS: Right, which is hard. But it’s like he’s on a search for reality as much as he’s on a search for magic.

LG: Yeah. I think that’s fair to say.

JS: Were you consciously thinking about that when you were writing Quentin? Or just saying, I’m trying to represent someone growing up and dealing with these situations?

LG: I’m talking to the characters and trying to emulate their behavior as accurately as he can. And then you go back and read and think about whatever that means.

JS: I think Steven King said something like that in On Writing, which is that he doesn’t consciously think about symbols, or metaphors, or that kind of thing when he’s in his first draft—he’s just trying to tell the story. Then he goes back through and says, “What might I have meant by this stuff?”

LG: I’ve heard that book is very good. I’ve never read it.

JS: Yeah, it is, it’s pretty interesting. Mostly it moves pretty quickly. Which I think is very nice. I certainly liked it. And that little comment obviously stuck in my mind enough to come out here, when he talks about symbols and how things work. Another thing that I noticed in The Magicians is that there were a lot of mentions of shit. Probably more than in any other fantasy novel I’ve read. Quentin smells “the faint, bitter odor of shit” when the interviewer dies. And you keep finding shit in the novel.

LG: It seemed important that there were strong whiffs of shit and sex in the first chapter, anyway.

JS: Right: Quentin also thinks that he’s not going to sleep with Julia, and that makes him unhappy.

LG: And he’s sort of, all hot for that paramedic lady.

JS: Who turns out to be Jane, right?

LG: Right. It goes back to this C.S. Lewis thing. I wanted to explore the idea that power begins with sex rather than ends with it.

JS: Probably because so many of us acquire power in order to deploy it to gain sex in one way or another. Or to gain the financial means we need to either acquire sex or attention.

LG: Yeah. Whereas in Narnia, of course, as soon as Susan puts on lipstick and nylons, that’s the end of Narnia for her.

JS: Well, in Harry Potter too, because it seems like the motives are all to defeat Voldemort rather than to be the star. It seems like Harry Potter is not being the star of the Quidditch team so he can get laid, but, at least based on the people I went to high school with, I’m guessing some of the football and basketball players liked their sport, yes, but—

LG: I don’t really understand the way sex works in the Harry Potter universe. It seems to be quite…

JS: Because it’s childish! And that’s what A.S. Byatt was writing about—which I don’t know if you’ve read her pieces critical of Harry Potter

LG: Yeah, I have.

JS: But you really like Harry Potter, from what I can gather from your blog.

LG: Yeah. Well I think Rowling makes distinct choices what it is that she’s going to deal with and what she isn’t. One of the most significant things to me is that she opted out of having Harry be a reader. Harry comes to Hogwarts without ever having read a fantasy novel in his life, which is flatly impossible. If he had grown up in that household, in the abusive step-family’s household, in that tiny room, all he would’ve done was to read his Narnia books to shreds, and then he’d have all these strange ideas when he got o Hogwarts about how magic is supposed to work.

JS: And then it doesn’t work out right.

LG: Yeah. He goes there as if he’s never read a book in his life.

JS: Yeah. It’s funny that you say that, because in the context of when I first read about The Magicians on Scalzi’s blog, I, of course, like a lot of English grad students, I’m a wananbe novelist-type, and I was about two-thirds of the way through a novel called A Glimmer in the Dark that also had people with special powers—but “magic” is ever named, of if it is named it’s mocked a little bit, like in Tolkien. So I was about two-thirds of the way through this and characters are constantly referencing fantasy novels, because they’ve read fantasy novels too. So when I first heard about The Magicians, I thought, “Oh, shit.” My second thought was of course, “Obviously I have to read this novel.” It was hilarious because I was thinking along the same lines.

LG: Yeah, well I’m sure there’s plenty of room to run with it. I think that that kind of—for lack of a better word, “literary self-awareness”—is a very productive angle for fantasy. I don’t see a lot of self-interrogation in fantasy novels. Which I don’t think is necessarily a criticism, I’m just very curious about it. When I read Watchmen for the first time, it was a very primal reading experience for me: to read a superhero story that aggressively attacked the very foundations of the conventions on which superhero stories are built. I fucking got off on that. That was very important to me. And the result was the realist superhero story I ever read.

That’s the end of the first part of the interview; you can read the second part here. A few follow-up thoughts:

Regarding the issue of solving problems:

I think that for a very long time—an embarrassingly long time—instead of solving problems, I tended to buffer them. Something would come up and I would think, ‘Well, that sucks,’ but I’ll stick it in the buffer, and when I get to Narnia, I’ll basically clear out the whole buffer. And not literally Narnia, but I would decide that if a certain that was coming up—if I got into college, for example—it would solve everything and I would never have any problems again. So I would ever really solve problems: I would put them off and lay them away for a time when they would get solved by the course of events.

I’m reminded of the song “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems,” which points out that success brings with it problems of its own, just of a different kind than what might’ve come before. It seems that people, especially young people, think that if they can just achieve “X,” where X might be success, or the significant other of their dreams, or money, or whatever, they will have it made.

But that doesn’t seem to happen very often in the real world: we swap one set of problems for another, unanticipated set, and happiness more often comes from within regardless of one’s circumstances. I’m stealing that idea from two major sources: Stumbling on Happiness, as mentioned in the interview, and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, about how he survived the Holocaust through withdrawing within himself. Neither idea is especially new—Stoic philosophy got at some of the same principles millennia ago—but both offer fresh takes on how and why these kinds of issues exist.

But relatively few people seem to understand this idea. Maybe I’m projecting my own feelings, and those I sense from friends and acquaintances, but it’s nonetheless what I sense.

Grossman says, that “I didn’t really understand how to engage with reality.” Neither do I, and I’m busy trying to stop that from happening, because it seems like that’s not always a positive thing.

As far as Hogwarts versus Brakebills, Hogwarts never seems that scary, and there aren’t very many unknown unknowns—that is, things about which the professors and students know absolutely nothing. That lessens the sense of horror and wonder.

There are known unknowns, like the power of various enemies, but very little of the truly terrifying things that are completely unexpected and dangerous. It’s one of many reasons why I don’t find Harry Potter satisfying. And most things in the world aren’t good or evil: they’re self-interested. Too few fantasy novels acknowledge that. Maybe too few novels in general acknowledge it, but to me it seems more prevalent in fantasy than literary fiction, and I think The Magicians is a useful corrective in that respect. I hope more fantasy novels will grapple with it. I would like to think that A Glimmer in the Dark, which I mentioned above, does, but whether it will see its way to publication at some point remains to be seen.

An interview with Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians and Codex, Part II

Note that this image is shamelessly stolen from Grossman's siteThis is the second part of an interview with Lev Grossman, author, most recently, of The Magicians, which is out in paperback. You can read part I here.

Jake Seliger: Just like in some ways The Magicians feels much realer than most other novels because it actually incorporates sex, and there are all these funny, dirty phrases—the kinds of things that buddies and I have talked about and that you hear around. Janet says, “I’m freezing my tits off,” at one point, and it’s like, “I know girls who talk like that.” But girls in fantasy novels never talk like that.

Lev Grossman: The first time I wrote the word “fuck” I could hear tens of thousands of elementary library sales just vanishing into mist. But that was the book I wanted to write.

JS: That’s a very good reason for writing it, because trying to write to the market seems like a fool’s errand in many respects.

LG: Yeah, I mean, I was happy to go on that errand, and I probably would have, but for some reason—I just couldn’t do it.

JS: Which in some ways is good, because maybe that’s what helped make the truer book that became what it is.

LG: I think that’s probably true, yeah. It’s a rare example of my not selling out in my life.

JS: Why a rare example?

LG: I’ve historically been drawn to large, powerful institutions like Harvard. I went to Yale. I joined Time Incorporated. These huge, monolithic institutions. I tend to embed myself in them. It seems very safe.

JS: I remember I read that people apparently thought that you could be a very buttoned up type, based on where you’ve gone to school, which I found interesting. I went to Clark University in Massachusetts, and in high school I was the co-editor of the newspaper, and one of the girls who was co-editor the year before me went to Harvard. I went to visit her, and I learned something very useful about the Harvard mystique: when Harvard kids are drunk or puking in the toilet or whatever, they look and act remarkably like everyone else.

LG: Yeah, they do that sober too. It’s a much less magical place than you would expect.

JS: I’m not sure I would expect it to be magical. Did you expect it to be?

LG: Yeah, but that’s because I was an idiot.

JS: That’s funny too, because I spent almost no time thinking about college when I was in high school, and I didn’t get particularly wonderful grades, and the future was just sort of like a gray mist that was out there.

LG: I was like this disgusting, grade-grubbing, Gollum-like creature who only thought about college. Colleges, of course, where I wouldn’t have any problems any more.

JS: I feel like I met you.

LG: Yes, you probably met me, and didn’t especially like me. I was so obsessed with that, and I didn’t think there would be any problems after that.

JS: We think there aren’t going to be any problems after moment X, and then there are. Quentin finds this out when he’s working—there are always these moments where magic is depicted as being really hard. Early on, The Magicians says, “Magic, Quentin discovered, wasn’t romantic at all. It was grim and repetitive and deceptive. And he worked his ass off and became very good at it.” It seems like this description can apply to a lot of life. The magic is really hard. It seems like accomplishing anything is really hard.

LG: It’s Quentin’s one gift, basically. He’s a real wonk. He works hard.

JS: I’m surprised he picks up magic tricks, as opposed to something like computer programming or math, which seems like they get analogized to magic—math seems analogous to math in the novel.

LG: My sister’s a mathematician, or she was, and my talent for math is just average. It seemed very magical, what she did, and it still kind of does.

JS: Computer programmers adopted the word “wizard” from fantasy novels. It’s in the Jargon File. If you’re a wizard, you’re a master because you can make the computer do something that it shouldn’t be able to do.

LG: It’s true. There aren’t many computers in The Magicians.

JS: It seems like you always need a way to have electricity not work [in fantasy novels]. When I was working on A Glimmer in the Dark, conveniently if you used the power, it would shut off electricity—because that often time makes for more satisfying drama. And for sword fights!

LG: It’s an absolutely essential cheat, and that was one of the big cheats in this book. I wanted Brakebills to look like a nineteenth-century country house, and I didn’t care what I had to do to make that happen. There’s no good reason.

JS: If you have the Internet, some of the romance of old books and that kind of thing—or having to memorize old spells—goes down. Because if you have a massive spell database, you would just read that. There’s no app for spells in The Magicians. The girl I’m dating is in med school, and she wants to get an iPhone because she needs an app that lists symptoms of diseases and stuff like that, so she queries “funny knee, runny nose, kidney problem, what does that mean?”

LG: There’s a series of fantasy novels, that I haven’t read, set in a world where electricity and magic are not incompatible, and, in fact, it is possible to do magic by running an app. Computers basically, when they execute code, they are capable of casting spells. That struck me as a really fascinating idea. And I was pissed that I didn’t think of it.

JS: It is a fascinating idea, but it also seems like one that can easily go wrong. Good fantasy often requires limits and places where power stops, so you don’t get into a God complex where you have a character who becomes God.

LG: I looked at that, when I read the premise, I thought, “My God, who the hell is going to take that on as their world?” I didn’t even know how you would start hashing out the rules.

JS: The Magicians feels so rules-based: there are limits, there are things that are unknown. That’s part of what’s so satisfying. It’s not like you’re constantly running up against a barrier and then you knock it right down.

LG: The question of the world being rule-governed is one that was really paramount to me. And I felt like I was negotiating between—something very weird happened, when you move from C.S. Lewis, to le Guin, to Rowling. In C.S. Lewis, magic is essentially miraculous. There are people who do magic, but they’re all evil, mainly Jadis, and the Magician, in The Magician’s Nephew.

JS: In Tolkien, Galadriel says to Sam, you use the same word—magic—to describe the deceits of the enemy as what I do. [Her actual quote is regarding the Mirror of Galadriel: “For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel” (Fellowship II, vii, 377).] For her it’s just something she does, not magic per se.

LG: Which is closer to my view. And then you move to le Guin, where magic literally is a language, and then to Rowling, where magic borders on the technological. It’s so completely rule governed that if you swish and you flick and you say, whatever you say.

JS: It seems very easy.

LG: It seems very easy, yes.

JS: And you’re reacting against that here with the rhetoric of magic being difficult, and the practice and the practice and the practice.

LG: Again, something that Rowling wasn’t interested in but I was. I wanted to know why magic was hard, and why some people could do it and some people couldn’t do it.

JS: There’s that speech that I believe Eliot gives toward the beginning

[Here’s the speech: “The reasons why most people can’t do magic? Well […] One, it’s very hard, and they’re not smart enough. Two, it’s very hard, and they’re not obsessive and miserable enough to do all the work you have to do to do it right. Three, they lack the guidance and mentorship provided by the dedicated and startlingly charismatic faculty of the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. And four, they lack the tough, starchy moral fiber necessary to wield awesome magical energies calmly and responsibly. And five […] some people have all that stuff and they still can’t do it. Nobody knows why. They say the words, wave their arms, and nothing happens. Poor bastards. But that’s not us. We’re the lucky ones. We have it, whatever it is.”]

and then he gives five reasons, and the fifth reason is that some people just can’t do it for reasons that aren’t apparent. And there’s that aspect of mystery again.

LG: I couldn’t tie off all the threads.

JS: You shouldn’t tie off all the threads.

LG: Then magic ceases to be magical. It becomes mundane. It becomes thermodynamics. Or the magical equivalent thereof.

JS: They go to Fillory, and they find—at least Alice and a few others—can still manage to do magic, although the Circumstances and I believe some other things have changed. So they still manage to translate, and perform some bad-ass magic, for lack of a better term.

LG: They really have to recalibrate for Fillory, and they do so at different rates.

JS: Quentin at a lesser rate, it seems. But he manages to cast Magic Missiles. The Magic Missiles seem to be more devastating than they are in Dungeons and Dragons.

LG: They are effective. I think, yes, they are effective. Either those monsters are really, really low level. It’s a what—D4 damage? Something quite low. Quentin, he figures it out during his weird mourning period with the Centaurs. He gets quite leveled up during that period.

JS: We have to go back to that terminology of leveling up.

LG: It turns out, there really isn’t a better way of talking about it.

JS: Even though it feels much more organic than that in the novel, because they’re learning and what not. Although it’d be funny if they had a stat ring or something like that, because then of course everyone at Brakebills would do it, and they would start comparing whose is bigger.

LG: Oh, completely. The metrics aren’t quite that precise. They have a general idea, who is strong and who is weak.

JS: And then they’re always comparing each other, like people in actual classes. Who’s the smartest, who’s the most knowledgable, who’s the most capable, who gets laid the most?

LG: But then, you know, look at Josh, who’s sort of flukey. He has a lot of juice, or whatever you want to call it, it’s just he can’t deploy it reliably.

JS: Which is somewhat problematic […] As far as the actual moving to Fillory, Anaïs, she really gets off on the bloodlust aspect, the killing aspect, in an almost psychopathic way. Can you speak more to that, or is she just an unappealing character and that’s who she is?

LG: She represented a personality type that we hadn’t seen up to that point. Which is somebody who doesn’t have this American sentimental attitude toward violent conflict. Maybe it’s a European thing, coming out of a culture that remembers what it’s like to have wars on its own soil. Maybe she’s just sociopathic. I think she probably is.

JS: She mixes that up with sex too. There’s that line where someone says, did you see her looking over Dint’s shoulder? She was pressing her tit into it.

LG: She just has empathy problems, basically. She’s one of those people.

JS: She’s almost encouraged to have empathy problems because in the labyrinth there just seem to be monsters.

LG: I cut out a sustained ethical argument about whether they could kill the monsters or not. Just to keep the tedious—

JS: What made it tedious?

LG: Fantasy and morality—it’s hard to represent morality in a nuanced way in the context of the fantasy genre. Things rapidly trend toward a black and white. I was having trouble hanging onto the shades of gray.

JS: You did a very good job of hanging onto shades of gray. That’s part of what is satisfying.

LG: That was one of my goals. I feel like if there isn’t a powerful, single antagonist, like Voldemort, who magnetizes everything into poles, well, I wondered what it would be like. If you remove that term from the equation, suddenly, everything becomes more complex.

JS: And here it does so effectively. Martin seems to be driven mostly by power for its own sake. Or he’s moved beyond human morality and has become the monster or the Beast.

LG: As you might notice, Martin is connected emotionally to Quentin, and on some level, is a frightening vision of the person Quentin could’ve become. Somebody who’s obsessed with Fillory and remaining there and then not returning to Earth. It’s not worlds away from Quentin. Martin just made some very dark transactions in order to stay there.

JS: So we’re going back to the idea that there is some aspect of forbidden knowledge, or places that people shouldn’t go.

LG: Yeah.

JS: You say yeah, but in a way that makes you sound very unconvinced. Like there’s something more there.

LG: I’m trying to hold onto my status as the fantasy writer who’s into shades of gray. Martin is a very difficult character because I’m not happy often with the way fantasy novels portray evil. I don’t find—as much as I like Harry Potter—Voldemort to be an especially compelling villain. I think the White Witch actually really is. So it troubled me a lot, the question of Martin’s evil. A lot of, sort of, bad DNA in the fantasy genre.

JS: Bad DNA. You’ve used that term of “fantasy DNA” before. I think it was in another interview that you said, “Fantasy novels share so much DNA with each other anyway, because the convention of the genre are so firmly established, that you’re almost always reworking an idea somebody worked before you.” But it seems to me that you could take out fantasy and insert all genres, or all models. In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, I think it’s Adso who realizes that books talk to other books. And he realizes intertextuality. So why limit that comment to fantasy novels? And also, why DNA? Why that metaphor?

LG: That’s a good question. I think I’ve always been concerned with DNA because I have an identical twin, who, in theory, I share 100% of DNA with. Well, I stick to my guns about fantasy. Genres are by their nature conventional, that’s what makes them genres. But I stick to my guns with the idea that there is a higher degree of continuity between fantasy novels than between most other novels within a genre. I see more biodiversity—I don’t say this as a bad thing, fantasy is the genre that I love—but strictly in terms of raw biodiversity, I feel like I see more of that in science fiction, or comics, or detective fiction. Not that I’ve made a thorough survey of detective fiction. I don’t read it very much.

JS: It’s hard to read all genres, because there are so many books out there.

LG: There are so many things that are just really rock solid fantasy. Think of a dragon, a sword, magic castles, knights. The building blocks—it’s very easy to point to them.

JS: And if you can point to them, the novelist should be taking them away, or doing something weird or unusual with them. Which you’ve accomplished and is part of what I was shooting for in A Glimmer in the Dark.

LG: I would never presume to say what novelists should do. But that’s what I wanted to do. What happened to A Glimmer in the Dark by the way?

JS: I think I finished submitting it to agents in December, and a bunch of them took either partials or fulls. And then all of them eventually declined, for various kinds of reasons. Which to me always makes me slightly crazy, because I’ve been a wannabe novelist type for a while, and I’ve gotten in a cycle, where starting with the novel I wrote before Glimmer, I started getting a lot of bites. The first two novels I wrote that were actually feature complete and proper lengths and what not—now I realize weren’t actually very good. Although I thought they were better at the time. And then finally I wrote one called A Winter-Seeming Summer’s Night, which steals a line from the John Donne Poem: “So, lovers dream a rich and long delight, / But get a winter-seeming summer’s night.” It’s about two journalists at the University of Washington who investigate a maybe rape in the Greek system. Finally I figured out how plotting works, especially, and how character works, and with that I finally started getting requests for partials and fulls, and then I’d get back these rejections. One would say, “too much research.” Another would say, “Research is great but characters are dead.” All kinds of stuff. And with Glimmer I’ve gotten a lot of the same kinds of things. I got a lot of generic—well, not generic exactly, but ones that basically said, “I don’t like it, try someone else.”

LG: As irrational and non-meritocratic as the publishing system is—

JS: Writers are irrational as well, because if I was rational, I would stop writing.

LG: Well, the agent part of it is, I feel, the least well-organized, and it’s absurd how that works. It’s very difficult to crack that.

JS: After I got all these eventual rejections and what not, I was bitching and moaning and telling my girlfriend I was going to stop writing fiction and focus on academic or other things for a while because I was an idiot, which I am. Robertson Davies has this great line where he says [quoted in the Guardian], “Robertson Davies, the great Canadian novelist, once observed: ‘There is absolutely no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.’ ” So I was bitching and telling her, I’m not going to do it anymore. Then we went to Seattle together and were sitting in French restaurant called Voila. I’m from Seattle, so she’d just met a lot of my friends. I looked at her and said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if you wrote a novel with a guy and a girl and they were thinking about getting married and the guy decided to make a game of it and poll all his friends?” This is not autobiographical. Should I get married or should I do? So I started writing Asking Alice […]

LG: That’s great.

JS: It’s a little bit like—I’ve been watching The Pacific on HBO, and they hit the beaches and get machine gunned. That’s a little bit how I feel. I take two steps on the beach and get machine gunned. I think this will be more of the same.

LG: I don’t know.

JS: There’s no answer to it. It’s very random and chaotic.

LG: I have to say, my first novel, Warp, was a complete failure. It only had representation because a woman I went to Yale with dropped out around the same time. I didn’t get a very successful agent except by accident.


Warp was a disaster. Codex, it took us a year and a half to sell it. It got 20-something rejections.

JS: So the rejection never stops.

LG: No. That was a cruel period. At a certain point you just have to ignore the data.

JS: Grad school is the same too, which everyone warns you about before you go to grad school. But you went and dropped out, if I recall. Were you ever a Derrida reader?

LG: Oh sure, yeah, I went to college in the late 80s, when he was all the rage.

JS: Did you ever read his essay “The Law of Genre?”

LG: No.

JS: What you were saying about genre earlier reminded me of it, because he says the law of genre is that genres are not to be broken, but we must break the law. I wish I could give a better account of it.


I was reading Codex on the way over here, and with Edward you see a lot of the same stuff Quentin’s going through.

LG: I suppose it’s inevitable.

JS: I don’t know if I’m like the fiftieth asshole to say, “Hey, I see your earlier book has some of the same themes as your later book.”

LG: I haven’t read Codex since it came out. My memory’s a bit fuzzy.

JS: Also, you have this question of childishness in Codex, and people are always accusing each other of that in The Magicians. […] It does seem dangerous to extend childhood unnecessary or unnaturally. That’s one of the things John Barth writes about: the dangers of trying to extend innocence past where it belongs. The Sot-Weed Factor is phenomenal.

LG: When I read Lost in the Funhouse when I was a freshman in college, I thought, my God, that person has said everything that I ever wanted to say in fiction, there’s no point in me going on.

JS: Funny how that can happen.

LG: And then I never connected with a book of his the same way.

JS: Did you try The Sot-Weed Factor?

LG: I did. He wrote a lot after that. […]

JS: Is there anything else you’d like to add or you’d like people to know?

LG: No one ever says anything in response to that, do they?

JS: Yeah! They say all kinds of stuff. [Here I tell a long story about working on my high school paper where this question saved my ass because I was interviewing someone who’d won a big jazz award, except I didn’t know why I was interviewing him. I learned some useful lessons in high school.]

LG: Once I interviewed Jack Nicholson, he was doing the press for—not As Good as It Gets. He was doing the press for a terrible movie. Something’s Gotta Give. Horrible movie. He had this interview or whatever, and the phone rang. The message was, this is Jack Nicholson, there’s something very important I forgot to mention. I called him back, left a message, but I never found out what it was.

JS: Bummer. […]

LG: I’m a big panicker. I never come up with anything good on the fly.


That’s the end of the interview, with a whimper, not a bang. Although Grossman did mention that, in this blog post, he stole the concept of Fuck-You Money from Cryptonomicon; I responded that that’s an excellent place to steal from.

A few other thoughts: I mentioned that “I remember I read that people apparently thought that you could be a very buttoned up type, based on where you’ve gone to school.” In person, Grossman’s not; if he was once, he’s shed that identity.

Grossman said, “I would never presume to say what novelists should do.” But I would stick to my assertion and would presume to say what novelists should do: something that isn’t already being done. Something that tries to break formulas to the extent possible. Something, in short, novel. I like quoting Milan Kundera’s assertion in The Curtain:

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.

I think Kundera is a bit overwrought, but his point is taken: aspiring to be average, to merely use what’s been given to you—why bother?

Regarding Asking Alice: If you’re curious, as of this writing, the agent mentioned to Grossman said no, as did a bunch of others, and I think two agents have fulls or partials right now. I’m working on a new novel called One Step Into the Labyrinth, which I’m about 70,000 words into, and which is done in the style of Carlos Ruiz Zafón and set in an imaginary version of Seattle.

Robert Jordan, the Wheel of Time, and the world around him

The End of the Story” concerns Robert Jordan and his epically bad fantasy series, The Wheel of Time. I’ve mentioned The Wheel of Time as being an important influence, “mostly for the worst,” although it eventually offered me something to react against. Still, from the ages of 12 – 15 or so, The Wheel of Time captivated me. I’d like to say, “I have no idea why,” but I do have some ideas, none of them flattering, and none of which I’d like to list.

My 12- – 15-year-old self is hardly alone: Jordan “sold more than 40 million books in his lifetime.” Whatever their merits, the people who bought those books in such numbers must have found something useful in them. But to me, the meta-phenomenon is sometimes more interesting than the phenomenon itself: Robert Jordan (or J.K. Rowling) aren’t particularly good writers, and Jordan is outright bad. Yet their popularity must say something about our culture, as difficult as it might be to ascertain what that something is.

Zach Baron tries to answer that question in “The End of the Story,” which is fascinating for its exploration of Jordan’s life and work. I kept waiting for him to talk about the writing itself: the first half of “The End of the Story” is notable for how it doesn’t cite examples from the work. As B.R. Myers said about Jonathan Franzen:

No doubt the rave reviews for Freedom will evince the same reluctance to quote from the text that we saw [with The Corrections]. Reviewers gave that book maximum points for sweep and sprawl while subtracting none for its slovenly prose, the short-windedness of each of its thousand “themes,” and the failure of the main story line to generate any momentum.

I don’t know if Myers is right about Franzen—I tried to read The Corrections not long after it came out and gave up—but Myers’ point about the disconnect between writing about books and citing what’s actually in them is well-taken.

For Jordan, there’s a very good reason for not quoting him: his writing isn’t very good. Baron does get there, mostly in the context of Jordan’s retrograde view of sexuality:

Jordan possessed an understanding of women so bankrupt it would make a seventh-grade boy weep. It was admirable that he tried: Jordan’s heroes were as liable to be female as male—more so, even—and most of the societies he depicted were either matriarchal or, at worst, equal opportunity.

But Jordan’s women do a lot of “sniffing,” usually loudly. They cross their arms under their breasts. Men to them are “wool-headed lummoxes” or “wool-brained mules.” (A disproportionately high number of women in the Wheel of Time are also lesbians—make of that what you will.) Jordan was not above describing rivals for the same man as “two strange cats who had just discovered they were shut up in the same small room.” That is, when he wasn’t making Borscht Belt jokes about their bad cooking, or spending pages describing their dresses. (In this respect, Jordan put romance novels to shame: the Wheel of Time without a doubt holds the record for inexplicably extended rhapsodies over brocaded silk, embroidery, hemlines, and necklines.) Mostly, what Jordan’s women are is the same: some combination of cold, willful, quick to take offense, and—around the right man—weak in the knees.

And fake: completely, totally, fake. The greatest fantasy in The Wheel of Time isn’t about magic—it’s about how women behave (or don’t). One thing that’s so refreshing about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is that, unlike so much fantasy (Jordan, C.S. Lewis, and others) women are real, present, and not merely there to be props for men or otherwise manipulated. Rowling, whatever her weaknesses as a stylist, also does this well in Harry Potter, but that something resembling real female characters are sufficiently unusual to be notable is unfortunate.

This was a common enough and fair enough criticism that Jordan responded:

Jordan was never anything but unapologetic. “I’ve seen a lot of comment, apparently from men, that my female characters are unrealistic,” he once wrote. “That’s because women are, for the most part, consummate actresses who allow men to see exactly what they intend men to see. Get behind the veil sometimes, boys, and your hair will turn white.

The dupe here is not male critics of Jordan (like me, or, implicitly, Baron), but Jordan himself, who claims to pierce one “veil” but in doing so has created other, more pernicious ones, constructed from cardboard and perhaps more constricting than whatever one he previously imagined.

Then again, given his male characters’ silliness and hangups, maybe we shouldn’t say that Jordan has problems with female characters—he has problems with characters. It’s just that the ones about male characters aren’t as offensive because they don’t exist in a context of men being portrayed as helpless, stupid, or mostly asexual. Instead, they’re merely aesthetically offensive. Which is worse I leave as an exercise to the reader.

Has science fiction "run out of steam?"

This post began life as a Slashdot comment in response to Has Sci-Fi Run Out of Steam?:

I doubt it, any more than science or technology has run out of steam due to a lack of imagination. Rather, I wonder if the science fiction publishing business has either run out of steam or become an active roadblock between writers and readers. It seems that most publishers are trying a play-it-safe approach that demands repetition over originality. This is based partially on what I see featured in bookstores and partially on my own experience, which I discuss extensively in Science fiction, literature, and the haters. It begins:

Why does so little science fiction rise to the standards of literary fiction?

This question arose from two overlapping events. The first came from reading Day of the Triffids (link goes to my post); although I don’t remember how I came to the book, someone must’ve recommended it on a blog or newspaper in compelling enough terms for me to buy it. Its weaknesses, as discussed in the post, brought up science fiction and its relation to the larger book world.

The second event arose from a science fiction novel I wrote called Pearle Transit that I’ve been submitting to agents. It’s based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—think, on a superficial level, “Heart of Darkness in space.” Two replies stand out: one came from an agent who said he found the idea intriguing but that science fiction novels must be at least 100,000 words long and have sequels already started. “Wow,” I thought. How many great literary novels have enough narrative force and character drive for sequels? The answer that came immediately to mind was “zero,” and after reflection and consultation with friends I still can’t find any. Most novels expend all their ideas at once, and to keep going would be like wearing a shirt that fades from too many washes. Even in science fiction, very few if any series maintain their momentum over time; think of how awful the Dune books rapidly became, or Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series. A few novels can make it as multiple-part works, but most of those were conceived of and executed as a single work, like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (more on those later).

The minimum word count bothers me too. It’s not possible for Pearle Transit to be stretched beyond its present size without destroying what makes it coherent and, I hope, good. By its nature it is supposed to be taunt, and much as a 120-pound person cannot be safely made into a 240-pound person, Pearle Transit can’t be engorged without making it like the bloated star that sets its opening scene. If the market reality is that such books can’t or won’t sell, I begin to tie the quality of the science fiction I’ve read together with the system that produces it.

If the publishing system itself is broken and nothing yet has grown up to take its place (I have no interest in trolling through thousands of terrible novels uploaded to websites in search of a single potential gem, for those of you Internet utopians out there), maybe the source of the genre’s troubles isn’t where PC Pro places it.

In addition, although science fiction publishing might appear sclerotic at times, science fiction in movies and TV shows continues unabated—many of which draw material from books. One commenter realized this: “The huge change in SF since I first started reading it in the 70’s is that these days, movie/TV SF is a gigantic, popular commercial enterprise, utterly dwarfing written SF.”

Still, I’ve found fun and fascinating SF writers thanks to the Internet: Jack Vance started as a recommendation and an article in the NYT magazine; Charlie Stross writes a blog; and others have sent good advice on where to look. But I think a lot of SF has turned towards the cerebral, towards alternate / fake worlds, and towards dealing with massive institutions on earth. These are all broad claims—too broad for a blog post—that I might follow-up in a future essay, but they’ve been churning in my mind enough for me to look for them in fiction—where they seem to be almost everywhere.

One other funny item: PC Pro uses the antiquated cliche “run out of steam,” which refers to steam engines that probably haven’t been widely used since the 19th century, to refer to a genre concerned with how the present represents the future. Maybe this indicates language itself can run far behind whatever the perceived times are.

James Cameron's Avatar

“Sometime in the next twenty years or so, the technology that enabled Avatar will become cheap enough to risk employing alongside a moderately intelligent script.”

—Alas: it appears that James Cameron’s Avatar is all technical achievement and no story. This is the cinematic equivalent of what I wrote about here with regards to literature.

EDIT: I saw the movie anyway and wrote about it here.

The Magicians – Lev Grossman

The Magicians is a surprise and delight: its language is not overly showy and yet often contains an unexpected surprise, especially at the ends of sentences, as this early description shows: “Quentin was thin and tall, though he habitually hunched his shoulders in a vain attempt to brace himself against whatever blow was coming from the heavens, and which would logically hit the tall people first.” Until the last clause, one could be reading any novel, fantasy or otherwise, but saying that a blow from heaven would hit the tall first gives us Quentin’s personality in a single line, and yet its ideas are spun coherently across the entire novel.

Furthermore, the line shows an awareness of conventional description (how many characters have been described as tall and thin, as though being identified to the police?) and a willingness to subvert or upend that convention. Just as Grossman does so in terms of Quentin, he does so in terms of the fantasy genre more generally. When I write phrases like “the fantasy genre more generally,” they sound boring, but The Magicians is anything but: it’s the fresh air that blows through a land that has too often become dank and polluted through mere copying rather than innovation or real novelty.

Fantasy novels often live and (more often) die by the quality of the worlds they create and the rules that have to be set. If the novel has no rules whatsoever, it loses any point: the result is mindless chaos. If the rules are violated with impunity, they don’t seem real: it isn’t possible to fly in real life without an airplane, or glider, or whatever, and each device has constraints. Break too many rules and the world starts to seem superficial, knocking one from the experience of reading. If a character consistently breaks every rule that’s available, he or she eventually becomes God-like, which in turn seems pointless: if a character doesn’t have boundaries between themselves and what they desire, what’s the plot? They take what they want in a sentence. Dante’s Inferno is notoriously more fun and interesting than his Paradiso.

Fantasy novels fail when they gratuitously violate the rule they set for themselves. In middle school (which is age 11 – 14, for those not familiar with U.S. education customs), I read innumerable Dragonlance novels, each one worse than the one preceding it; one problem of the series as a whole was a wildly inconsistent magic system in which the heroes of one novel could be vastly more or less powerful than another. In another terribly series I read, The Sword of Truth, each novel depended on finding another villain even more powerful than the villain before, and a way to defeat that villain using ever more esoteric powers against them. Most of them also have comically juvenile view of sexuality, as I mentioned here—in The Sword of Truth, powerful women who have sex with men turn them into slavering servants who are willing to cut off their own genitalia. The bad guy is named Darken Rahl. Subtle, much?

One of Tolkien’s many brilliant decisions or realizations in The Lord of the Rings involves the fact that all the characters know the approximate borders of their powers; Gandalf often qualifies what he says, even in instances when it appears he knows the facts of a situation. While describing Frodo’s ordeal, Gandalf says, “This is what happened, as far as I can tell” (emphasis added). Gandalf was not there: he doesn’t know for sure based on eye-witness testimony. In short, he has a contingent view of the universe—a topic I’ll return.

There’s a great deal Gandalf doesn’t know, and that he knows he doesn’t know: that there’s a Balrog in Moria, or that one of the Palantiri is thrown by Wormtongue, or how, at first, to even enter Moria. So too with many of the situations in The Magicians: although Quentin and his friends don’t understand the world or each other in part due to adolescent fumbling and folly, his professors don’t understand it fully either: a mysterious entity appears in a classroom early on, and the magical protections that have been so laboriously woven around the school fail to keep this entity out; it would be like some force penetrating the security imposed by the Secret Service around the White House. The professors are stymied, and it’s a useful and terrifying moment precisely because no one knows what’s going on. In some ways, its randomness is scarier than the infinite varieties of dark lords who pop up like corn in Iowa, only to be mowed down by the scythe of heroes. There is so much we don’t know about the world, The Magicians implies, much as the modernist writers implied that there’s so much we don’t know about what goes in the human mind.

In The Magicians, magic is more like computer science or writing well or electrical engineering: it demands long study and practice to master, complete with incantation, confounding variables, deep thought, passionate virtuosity, and great precision. Grossman said in an interview with The New Yorker that “I was never really satisfied with what Rowling tells us about magic in Harry Potter. I never understood what was so hard about it—it just seems like swish and flick and expelliarmus and Bob’s your uncle.” It wasn’t hard. But then again, it isn’t as hard as one might expect in The Magicians, at least in the sense that its rules, limits, and details are never fully described, as one can, for example, find much of computer science is in the Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs or The Art of Computer Programming. Or maybe they are there, and Quentin doesn’t see fit to share them with us. If so, however, the magical equivalents of those two books are well hidden; we’re more often treated to descriptions of how difficult magic is than examples of it. Take this passage:

Talent was a part [of being able to use magic]—that silent, invisible exertion he felt in his chest every time a spell came out right. But there was also work, hard work, mountains of it. Every spell has to be adjusted and modified in a hundred ways according to the prevailing circumstances… under which it was cast… textbooks and teachers treated [magic] like an orderly system for the purposes of teaching it, but in reality it was complex and chaotic and organic… It was Mayakovsky’s intention to make them memorize all these minutiae, and not only to memorize them but absorb and internalize them.

All this comes from a single page. The writing isn’t especially inspired here, especially the bits about “invisible exertion” felt in the chest. But the ideas are fascinating, even if we have to ask: but what does that mean, to have spells that have to be ceaselessly adjusted and modified? We don’t know. Quentin expresses the same interest regarding the imaginary (in the sense of “invented for The Magicians“) novels regarding Fillory, a land much like Narnia written by an author named Plover: “Now that [Quentin] had been to Brakebills and knew something about real magic he could read Plover with a more critical eye. He wanted to know the details behind the spells.” He doesn’t find out. When he’s performing “magic tricks” in the conventional sense using cards, he finds that learning the skill “wasn’t romantic at all. It was grim and repetitive and deceptive. And he worked his ass off to become very good at it.” Writers, however, aren’t very good at being able to show this work in fictional form because it would bog down the narrative, even if they themselves have mastered their own systems. Another powerful tool underlying Tolkien is the Elvish languages and the ancient legends; although they’re never explained, one can feel their depth and the sense of crumbling history that underlies Weathertop and the Rauros Falls. But fully explaining the details of a magic system is much more tedious—better to say the practice is grim and repetitive than show us how grim and repetitive it can be.

It is possible to have such descriptions in novels; Neal Stephenson analogizes early computers to organs, as in the music instruments, and cryptography to bike chains in Cryptonomicon, deftly explaining both ideas in ways that don’t require one to have actually taken the math behind behind the concepts to nonetheless understand them. We don’t get that in The Magicians. But we do get many descriptions of the tests and rituals that are reminiscent of what students are widely subjected to in school today; I can remember having to take Washington State tests in middle and high school, the Pre-SAT, the SAT, a bundle of Advanced Placement (AP) tests, innumerable college finals, the LSAT, the general GRE, and the subject GRE. There are probably more than I’m remembering at the moment. I’m surprised that a greater number of novels don’t focus on the rigamarole modern students go through. Then again, in retrospect I doubt any of them have been all that vital to my overall well-being and happiness: for that, reading interesting books, my sex life, and having “enough” money have all been far more important. The better question is, why didn’t I realize that earlier?

Still, tests in magic land are somewhat more consequential: whether you go to Columbia, Cornell, Williams College, or the University of Washington is of far less consequence than whether you go to magic school. Calculus and statistics don’t change based on what conventional university you attend, but if you don’t get into Brakebills, you’re apparently stuck in the regular world that many apparently want to flee, but if they flee further than fantasy novels, they might search why the regular world is structured as it is—which Quentin discovers, as all young people in Bildungsromans must, the hard way. Sure, meeting the Elves of Middle-earth would be great, but what do you do without insole support while trooping through hundreds of miles of wilderness? And what about toilet paper?

When he gets more into magic than he cares to, Quentin thinks, “Everything was much less entertaining and more difficult to organize than they’d counted on.” It’s a bit like going to Mars: great in science fiction but really tough in real life. The modern Western world is filled with incredible logistical marvels like smooth roads, plumbing, electrification, and so forth, all of which we take for granted, and all of which fantasy novels tend to ignore. Focusing too much on what one doesn’t have would be boring, but remembering that it exists is still useful, as is the difficulty in acquiring real skills. The move to magic land isn’t an easy one; Quentin wakes up and felt “vaguely confused and regretful, like he’d drunk too much at a party with people he didn’t know very well and fallen asleep in the host’s spare bedroom.” Images of altered consciousness are more common when dealing with magic, which can come to symbolize drugs, science, and more: perhaps that’s part of what appeals about the idea of magic: that it can morph, becoming everything and nothing.

The only other fantasy novel I know of in which magic seems both hard and limited comes from Usrula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, but in the first three novels the characters behave more like idealized scholars or monks than people: they don’t have sex, they don’t get drunk, they don’t manipulate one another to achieve sex, drunkenness, power, or fame, and generally have adventures that are intellectually and spiritually encoded, unlike many prominent United States politicians who have used their power for more conventional purposes.

The Magicians is, in short, a self-conscious, or at least self-aware, fantasy novel, which very few books in the genre have been. In literary fiction, such ideas go back a long ways: the Modernists mapped the terrain extensively, John Barth wrote all over the maps with books like The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, and by now it seems like many literary novelists are moving away from the overtly modernist or post-modernist ideals and towards greater subtlety, which Grossman shows. After I wrote the first draft of this paragraph, I saw a Grossman essay titled “Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard” in the Wall Street Journal, which also discusses the pervasive influence of modernism, which can too easily devolve into the pernicious influence of that school. Mark McGurl builds The Program Era around modernism’s legacy too. Perhaps authors are ready to move toward something else—which might also be a kind of return, but this time to Nineteenth Century novels, much as Post-Modernism was, in a fashion, a return to Eighteenth Century novels.

Self-consciousness imbued in plot that assumes a modernist view of character might be one way to that goal. Quentin thinks that, had he not gotten his wish, “He would have never have known the horror of really getting what he thought he wanted.” The bigger problem is that he thought he wanted the wrong thing and never corrected for it, and he treated adolescent love affairs like major issues of state, but without his parents around to take away his car keys and tell him that he’ll get over it. Instead, he finds the attractiveness of deadening emotions, or what he thinks “deadening emotions means,” when a particularly gruesome bit of what one can only call closer to the real world causes him to think, “The funny thing about it was how easy everything got, when nothing mattered.” Everything matters and nothing does: it sounds like unsourced Nietzsche, which is hardly a bad thing. Other very old ideas reappear too, like this:

In a way fighting like this was just like using magic. You said the words, and they altered the universe. By merely speaking you could create damage and pain, cause tears to fall, drive people away, make yourself feel better, make your life feel worse.

This could be an unusually clear example of speech act theory. But there are also allusions to Harry Potter, Tolkien, The Karate Kid (“Wax on, wax off”), C.S. Lewis, and probably other works I’ve missed. When Quentin and a classmate named Claire have to enter a door as part of a hazing ritual for their major, Physical magic, an older student eventually says that the door used to open when you said “friend” in Elvish—which Gandalf does to enter the Mines of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. She doesn’t note, however, that there are multiple strands of Elvish, Sindarin being the most widely known, the language Gandalf speaks: for magicians, many of these characters are cavalier with details. Nonetheless, if I were confronted with a magic door, saying mellon would certainly be one of my first efforts.

For all Grossman’s skill, there are few language flaws in it: Grossman likes the adjective “pretty” too much (page 83: “A woman was fussing over him, a pretty woman.” Page 64: His tutor was Professor Sunderland, the pretty young woman who had asked him to draw maps during his Examination.”) But the language is skillful, the larger plot is an impressive construction, the genre bending works, and the larger philosophical issues mesh. In short, from the micro- to macroscopic, The Magicians works. Too many novels succeed on the micro level of language or the macro level of plot without putting the two together. Not everyone agrees: take this quote from M.A. Orthofer’s review of The Magician, for example:

Quentin, in particular, shows very little maturity — he remains literally a schoolboy — and there is essentially no personal growth to his character, his passage to adulthood flatlining over the course of the story. (The fact that he’s an unsympathetic shit for long stretches (as are a surprisingly large number of the other characters) may be realistic — that moody college age (though in his case it feels more like that moody tween age) … — but doesn’t help matters.)

Given his home life and the demands of the school for magic, Quentin shows surprising maturity much of the time in all matters except sexual ones; in that respect, he’s closer to 14 than to 20, at least given my current understanding of university-style behavior.

The Magicians offers much more than Orthofer gives it, in part because Orthofer is focused on the direct characterization rather than how the plot affects how characters react to their circumstances. The complaints about pacing have some justification to them in the sense that monsters aren’t ceaselessly arising, and the book has a habit of showing rather than telling, as previously discussed, but these are to my mind necessary parts of understanding the world. The Magicians is the kind of book I’d hoped The Name of the Wind would be: fun, fast-moving, and written by someone who has vast ideas that are expressed with nuance. It brings the paradoxical realism of the kind James Wood celebrates in How Fiction Works to fantasy.

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