I have been writing about Lev Grossman’s Magicians novels since 2009, not long after I started this blog, and enough time has passed to elicit nostalgia.
The actual publication date is Aug. 5.
I have been writing about Lev Grossman’s Magicians novels since 2009, not long after I started this blog, and enough time has passed to elicit nostalgia.
The actual publication date is Aug. 5.
The Magician King has many of the qualities that made The Magicians special: twists on standard fantasy tropes; impressive language in many sentences, although not quite as impressive its predecessor; and a consistent willingness to instill a sense of wonder about the world and about what the characters might be able to accomplish. Happy endings aren’t foreordained, which is to be admired.
But The Magician King lacks the surprising urgency of The Magicians and feels like another lap after the race is over. Consider a passage from page six, after Quentin, Julia, Janet, and Eliot have returned to Fillory as benevolent if distracted monarchs. They’re hunting a magic hare who can see the future, which sounds like a bum gig; life’s excitement comes from not knowing what happens next:
The point wasn’t really to catch the hare. The point was—what was the point? What were they looking for? Back at the castle their lives were overflowing with pleasure. There was a whole staff whose job it was to make sure that every day of their lives was absolutely perfect. It was like being the only guests at a twenty-star hotel that you never had to leave.
Does this sound familiar? If you read The Magicians, it should, since The Magicians is endlessly concerned with the questing for meaning that can’t be imposed from without. I’m going to spend the next couple paragraphs looking at similar rhetoric from The Magicians; if this sort of thing bores you, skip to the paragraph that starts with a series of bolded words. Rhetorical comparisons aren’t everyone’s forte, but they’re essential for understanding how The Magician King is too often a rehash of the same problems presented in The Magicians but without a new angle on those problems.
In The Magicians, Quentin thinks:
You just had to get some idea of what mattered and what doesn’t, and how much, and try not to be scared of the stuff that doesn’t. Put it in perspective. Or something like that. Otherwise what was the point?
“What was the point” is a decent question for someone with an adolescent temperament. Quentin spends the rest of the novel ineffectively trying to answer the question. He doesn’t answer it, not perfectly, but somewhat understands that you make the “point” for yourself. You make meaning for yourself, because meaning can’t be imposed by external social forces, and death itself gives meaning to life. One would think the sheer realism of The Magicians’s end would show Quentin as much. When the party reaches Ember’s Tomb at the end of The Magicians, two large, evidently hostile animals charge, and we find our hero panicking: “Oh my God, Quentin thought, this is really happening. This is really happening.” You don’t make something merely by saying it, although the prospect of death wakes him from the upper-middle class reverie where he’s been living. Death, especially violent death, is not beautiful or noble—it is terrifying and shocking. It reminds you of why so many people move to the quiet suburbs and get jobs in middle management. Beats the hell out of getting the hell beaten out of you.
The repetition of “This is really happening” is like a refrain designed to keep Quentin awake. He watches the death of the Ferret and thinks, “He wasn’t ready for this. This wasn’t what he’d come here for.” He wasn’t ready then and he never will be—unlike Alice, whose maturity contrasts with his throughout The Magicians. She says, “[…] don’t talk to me about death. You don’t know anything about it.” She’s right. The disappointing thing is that he still doesn’t in The Magician King. He hasn’t internalized the central fact that death is connected to finding meaning because death and its predecessor aging can’t be avoided. I am not opposed to characters who don’t realize this; I am opposed to characters who don’t realize this, have a series of events that should cause an epiphany, appear to realize it, and then forget that they’ve realized it in the next novel.
Early in The Magicians, Quentin is still in a mostly mundane reality and thinks that
He’d spent too long being disappointed by the world—he’d spent so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn’t the only world, and coping with the overwhelming evidence that it in fact was. He wasn’t going to be suckered in just like that. It was like finding a clue that somebody you’d buried and mourned wasn’t really dead after all.
And now, in the time of The Magician King, he’s a king in Fillory and still dissatisfied. You can’t get no satisfaction, Quentin, but the problem eventually shifts from the world’s fault to your own. He is still “looking for something else. He didn’t know what it was.” You were looking for something else in Brooklyn and now you’re looking for something else in Fillory. No one, not even a Seeing Hare, can tell Quentin. Whenever “Life was good” for Quentin, it was time to fuck it up for no particular reason. Seeing someone fuck up a perfectly good life through understandable hubris and dumb social dynamics is thrilling and sickening once, as it is in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Seeing someone do so twice is just daft.
In The Magician King, Quentin is still in awe of where he is: “You really knew you were in a magical fantasy otherworld when a beautiful woman wearing a skimpy dress made of leaves suddenly jumped out of a tree.” But he’s been seeing magic constantly for, presumably, years. Are talking animals not enough? Still, the novel’s fidelity to the bureaucratic grit of life is impressive—Janet says of Dryads, “I spend enough time listening to them bitch about land allocation.” Ruling Fillory becomes associated with petty zoning squabbles of the sort you can find at City Hall if you’re so inclined. That Grossman includes such ideas is part of what makes The Magicians and its sequel special. But it also raises expectations, and when he includes something that’s wrong, it’s disquieting, as with this:
Fillory wasn’t England. For one thing the population was tiny—there couldn’t have been more than ten thousand humans in the whole country, plus that many talking animals and dwarves and spirits and giants and such.
A population that small wouldn’t be sufficient to get Fillory into medieval-level specialization; at best, 20,000 people could support a slightly elevated hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Plus, why is the land so infertile that it can only feed 10,000 people? Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the Malthusian paradox ensured that populations grew to approximately the size of the agricultural capacity of the land itself. With only 10,000 people and 10,000 magical non-people, there couldn’t have been much arable land, and certainly not enough to sustain any kind of specialization network (for more on similar topics, see, for example, Mokyr’s The Enlightened Economy and Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, along with the vast corpus of economic and historical literature about historical development patterns and the Industrial Revolution). Fillory is big enough to have a navy. Countries of 20,000 don’t even have an army, and the knowledge necessary to grow a ship-building industry must span thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people. Suddenly, I’m jolted out of a fictional universe and into the various economics textbooks I’ve read by a seemingly trivial detail.
And this isn’t the only scene of questionable economics. Quentin goes on a quest to collect taxes from an outer island with a single-digit population, and while there an uncanny resident says:
Tomorrow I’ll take you out to see the gold beetles. They’re amazing: they eat dirt and poop out gold ore. Their nests are made of gold!
If a source of apparently infinite gold is available via a short ship ride from the mainland, the logical thing to do is to begin farming and set up a trading route. Why hasn’t anyone done so? The Spanish imported so much silver from the Americas in the age of colonization that some economists believe it caused inflation in the European economy. People are very good at acting on incentives and exploiting commodities. Why aren’t the Fillorians? It could be because the novel states that there’s an abundance of everything, again for reasons that aren’t obvious, but that’s not a terribly satisfying explanation.
You could get over these errors and others by waving your hand and saying, “It’s magical”—Quentin says “Magic was part of the ecosystem”—but it still rankles in a book devoted to showing the “real” side of magical living. These are minor details, but they stand out in a book devoted to realism.
Quentin has a small-l liberal, educated, and modern knowledge of how group formation works (a hilarious sample of his liberalism: “If I were a Fillorian I would depose me as an aristocratic parasite”), as shown by his unwillingness to identify with the putative patriotism embodied in a tapestry
that depicted a marvelously appointed griffin frozen in the act of putting a company of foot soldiers to flight. It was supposed to symbolize the triumph of some group of long-dead people over some other group of long-dead people whom nobody had liked, but for some reason the griffin had cocked its head to one side in the midst of its rampage and was gazing directly out of its woven universe at the viewer as if to say, yes, granted, I’m good at this. But is it really the best use of my time?
“The triumph of some group of long-dead people over some other group of long-dead people:” your own fears, prejudices, and beliefs will one day probably appear the same way to many others. Are your beliefs so strong and important that the issues they represent will still be important 100 years from now? Five hundred? A thousand? Or will you be another long-dead person of limited importance, with ridiculous but firmly held allegiances to minor causes that turn out to be historical blips?
Many parts of The Magician King are funny: “Quentin had some idea that Australians were fun-loving and easy-going, and if that was true he could see why Poppy had gotten the hell out of Australia.” Quentin draws his sword, but he has trouble: “Nothing made you look like more of a dick than standing there trying to find the end of your scabbard with the tip of your sword.” Although The Magician King is, alas, less sexed than its predecessor, one doesn’t need Freud to realize Quentin is talking about more than a sword, especially when he thinks: “Let somebody else be the hero. He’d had his happy ending” (if that isn’t enough, Eliot also makes a sword-related double entendre on page 29). I guess it takes a while to recharge after a happy ending, even for a king.
The humor both conceals and reveals vital truths. Quentin has never really been the hero, so thinking he should let somebody else be the hero is presumptuous. This is played for comedy, and successfully. The comedy naturally and appropriately falls away as the novel progresses into darker days, much as it does in The Magicians, but the jokes make the novel fun. So do the moments of self-recognition, like this one:
Quentin couldn’t think who Benedict reminded him of until he realized that this was what he had probably looked like to other people when he was sixteen. Fear of everybody and everything, hidden behind a mask of contempt, with the greatest contempt of all reserved for himself
Quentin’s diagnosis the problems of others more easily than his own: “Maps of places, rather than actual places, were obviously where young master Benedict preferred to live.” Replace “Maps of places” with “The Internet” and “actual places” with “the real world,” and you’ve got a decent description of a lot of contemporary adolescents. The novel is very good at these mappings onto the real world.
The “good,” however, is not consistent; even the novel’s first line has an “almost, but not quite” feel: “Quentin rode a gray horse with white socks named Dauntless.” Is Dauntless the name of the white socks or the gray horse? The context makes it obvious, but I had to double check. There are also reflections of contemporary society—the quartet, who are listlessly hunting a magic rabbit, “moved in silence, slowly, together but lost in their separate thoughts.” Rather like people and their cell phones: if you look around, you’ll often find couples or groups all of whom are looking into their phones, as if searching crystal balls for answers. Do they find them? I sometimes want to ask. But I don’t. Usually.
There aren’t as many of those spectacular sentences as there were in The Magicians; there are some, like this: “Casually, like she was calling over a waiter, Julia summoned a tiny songbird to her wrist and raised it up to her ear.” Nice: the metaphor makes magic seem normal, a part of her life, which contrasts with Quentin’s continued shock at magic. The magic blends with the technological; a paragraph later, Quentin notices how Julia “was always giving and getting little secret messages from the talking animals. It was like she was on a different wireless network from the rest of them.” Talking animals and wireless networks correspond to fantasy/fairy tale and to science fiction / literary fiction, but these two sentences join them. If you’ve ever accidentally tried connecting an 802.11b device to an 802.11n network, you’ll understand the frustration of knowing that everyone around you can use, theoretically, up to 130 Mbs / second while you’re stuck at 11 Mbs / second (Grossman makes the technological metaphorical; I extend the metaphor). A few days ago, my class was talking about James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues,” and I wrote on the board that music functions like TCP/IP. Did anyone notice? I’m not sure.
The wireless network comparison reminds me of this description from The Magicians, of Eliot: “That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog.” The equivalence between hitting someone and starting a blog, which one senses many do because they wish they had the courage to hit someone, is so biting, so surprising. More surprising than the wireless network, however appropriate the wireless network comparison is.
Grossman hides a lot in a small space. The Magician King opens in Fillory while The Magicians closes in New York. That gap is filled in swiftly: “But then he and the others had pulled themselves together again and gone back to Fillory. They faced their fears and their losses and took their places on the four thrones of Castle Whitespire and were made kings and queens.” There’s a whole novel in those lines. The passage is also strange because pulling themselves together has never been a strong suite for the collected magicians; they seem much better at tearing each other pointlessly apart.
You could argue that much of this review consists of quibbles, small points, and things easily ignored. You’d be partially right. Taken on their own, many of the things I’ve written about are unimportant. Taken together, they begin to form a pattern. I don’t expend this kind of energy on every good but somewhat disappointing book that comes my way; most I don’t write about at all, let alone at this length. I’m writing about this one because of how good The Magicians was. You don’t hold a college athlete, even an accomplished one, to the same standards as an Olympian, and The Magician King should be competing at the Olympic level but instead settles for keeping one eye on the NCAA rankings, hoping to make it to Nationals. That’s not quite ambitious enough, however impressive competing at the college level might be.
In The Magicians, Julia was an object of Quentin’s misdirected adolescent lust at the start and reappeared at the end, riding a broomstick and rescuing Quentin from himself. Quentin does need to be rescued from himself routinely; this pattern holds in The Magician King. Hell, Julia even says, “Sometimes you just have to do things, Quentin [. . .] You spend too much of your time waiting.” Yes. We know.
Her story takes up a large narrative chunk of The Magicians, which is really two threads in two separate time registers: Quentin’s, moving forward on his self-conscious quest, and Julia’s regarding her progression as a magician outside the Brakebills track. But her story lacks urgency. In an interview, Grossman said: “It was almost an engineering project to retrofit that particular timeline. Because in Magician King, we go over the same period of time that happened in The Magicians, and we fit Julia’s story in there.” The engineering shows where it should be hidden, and, more than that, it feels. Since you—the reader—already know Julia becomes a magician, there’s not much narrative tension until the scene where she loses some of her humanity (which I won’t describe further here, though it’s shocking and powerful). Otherwise, she’s going through a bizarro-world version of what Quentin has already done. Since we know she learns magic, the means of getting there aren’t all that important. Neither are the various somewhat arbitrary hoops she goes through, which resemble the spiraling downward of despair one sees in drug addiction narratives. The culmination of the narrative is strong, but the getting there is too long and feels too much like padding. Or engineering, if you prefer.
More on that in the next section.
Don’t read the rest of this post if spoilers irritate you. A friend wrote to say this, and only this, in an e-mail with the subject line “Just finished the Magician King:”
Magical fox-rape cum… really???!!!
I’m actually not opposed to the scene my friend is referencing: it is hard to read and vile, but then so is rape, and rape is part of the world, and the world should be the novelist’s subject. I think my friend is fixated on a scene she would’ve respected or accepted in a different context—a context that was a main story, not a subsidiary one. The scene is the culmination of Julia’s powers and makes us understand what she’s given up, so to speak, to get where she is. It’s a powerful point. But the temporal shifting of the scene, from Julia’s distant past to her present, isn’t as important as it should be because it’s grafted onto Quentin’s saving Fillory quest. The Julia story should’ve been told in its own book, with its own details and tensions, and the larger Magician King story should’ve been a third, standalone novel. Conflating them makes an awkward chimera of a novel.
So we get a somewhat ungainly hybrid, with the false crescendo of the fox-God rape being a prelude to the true ending. It doesn’t work as well as it should. Which isn’t to say the scene doesn’t work at all: it does. It’s only disappointing because of the sense that the scene and its story could’ve been so much better—like The Magician King itself. The novel is good. As I said in the first line of this review, I like it. But The Magician King doesn’t have that essential feeling, that power, that grip that made me say to friends who like fantasy or want book recommendations, “Heard of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians? No? Get a copy.” Now those friends have heard of Lev Grossman, and they want to know how the new ones is. I tell them it’s okay—and it is—but I also ask: have you already read Philip Pullman? Ursula K. le Guin? Tolkien? Elmore Leonard? If not, start there. I wish Quentin had new problems. The world is full of unmet needs and desires. Why can’t he realize that? Read The Magician King if you have the time and inclination. But literature is very big, life is short, and sometimes incredible writers don’t produce the book you most hope for.
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 Pierre—Pierre‘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.
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?
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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?”
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.
I’m on the record praising Lev Grossman’s essay “Good Books Don’t Have to be Hard.” Predictably, that piece generated a fair amount of blowback (and a concomitant amount of misinterpretation, like the fallacious argument that Grossman is arguing that good books can’t be hard); see a sample of it here, complete with a comment from yours truly.
Now, however, we can see how Lev Grossman Responds to Criticism of His Wall Street Journal Piece, as spoken by the man himself. Read it when you get a chance. It’s not terrible, but I think he could do better, and I hope he does “write more (if anybody cares) when I’m back in civilization.”
One thing I’d strongly disagree with comes when Grossman discusses Twilight’s sales: “All those millions of people might be idiots or have bad taste. But I think it’s kinda intellectually lazy to say that.” I don’t, and they do have bad taste. I’ve read a book and a half of the series, and they’re so cliche-ridden that they make Harry Potter look like Shakespeare, and the writing has originality and verve that make Dan Brown impressive by comparison.
To be fair, he goes on to say, “Meyer is doing something very very well, or at least giving people something they really really want, and I don’t think we have a good critical vocabulary yet for talking about what that something is.” She might be doing something well, yes, but writing isn’t it. That’s why a lot of people who are literary and/or like good writing don’t think much of her.