Briefly noted: The Magicians, re-read, and the TV show

The Magicians holds up well (and the link goes to my original review). What stands out still is the relentless focus of Quentin on happiness: I’d guess that the word appears at last a dozen times, and maybe more, in the novel—too often for anyone who is actually happy to think about it. Quentin’s melancholia is a sort that, if it can be cured, cannot be cured in the ways in which he is attempting to cure it. Don’t be fooled by the magical trappings: the novel is still primarily psychological.

Between now and then The Magicians has been made into a disappointing TV show; that show has high points and funny moments but it cannot overcome a fundamental problem that is illustrative for other writers: it advances all of the characters’ ages by five to ten years, which defeats much of the point and pleasure of the book. The book is about coming of age. It is stuffed with references like this one, from late in it, when (I don’t think this gives anything away) most of the main characters make it to Fillory: “For all the glory of their high and noble purpose, it felt like they were going on a summer-camp nature hike, or a junior high field trip, with the kids goofing on and the two counselors looking dour and superior and grown-up and glaring them back into life when they strayed too far” (one decent definition of being grown-up is that you are no longer concerned with appearing grown up (or not)). It is hard to feel glorious and “noble” when you are being supervised by adults who’ve really seen the world, as Dint and Fen (their guides) have, or apparently have.

Characters who are in the 22 – 30 age range are less likely to analogize their lives to summer camps or junior high field trips. This may seem like a minor point at first. In the show, the characters are still angsty, but at their age their style of angst no longer makes any sense, as they ought to have decently developed, decently resilient personalities by then. That they do not is the flaw the show never manages to overcome.

To be sure, The Magicians tv show does have excellent individual moments, but they don’t add up to much. The actor who plays Penny in particular is a standout (unfortunately, there is something off about the one who plays Quentin). Mostly, the show is an exercise in showing why HBO is so good at its shows and the SyFy channel is so not good at its shows. The Magicians as a TV show is a weak show with a strong one lurking obviously within it, which may be the most frustrating kind. The ones that are transparently bad are just passing phenomena. The ones that are transparently good offer their pleasures. The ones that could be good pain.

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.

The Magician King — Lev Grossman

I love The Magicians. I like The Magician King.

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???!!!

The worst.

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 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.

Late March Links: Sexting times two, English as a baffling language, vocabulary, raising the status of U.S. manufactured goods, Lev Grossman's The Magician King, science as a career, and more

* Sexting lawsuits get stupid.

* Why videogames haven’t grown up yet: sex. And, the writer notes, why do so many videogames deal with it in such a juvenile (read: juvenile boy) way?

* An etiquette guide, and one of the unintentional hilarities of self-publishing.

* “To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more [. . .] ‘Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation [. . . .]’ ” The problem: I don’t see how you can accomplish this without making it harder to fire teachers. One thing most high-status occupations have in common: you have to be good at them to remain in the occupation. If you’re not good, you’ll be forced to the margins of the occupation, suffer financial consequences, and have clients leave you. Until teaching does that, it can’t really improve in status. Until teachers’ unions will accept simpler firing procedures or are eliminated, that can’t happen.

* English, that baffling language.

* AT & T is piping Internet data straight to the NSA. Nasty.

* Microsoft Word Now Includes Squiggly Blue Line To Alert Writer When Word Is Too Advanced For Mainstream Audience.

* Who Is Really a Sex Rebel? Why we are so obsessed with desire among the Victorians.

* A political history of science fiction.

* Neil Gaiman: Why defend freedom of icky speech?

* A Girl’s Nude Photo, and Altered Lives. This is completely insane:

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of students had received her photo and forwarded it.

In short order, students would be handcuffed and humiliated, parents mortified and lessons learned at a harsh cost. Only then would the community try to turn the fiasco into an opportunity to educate.

* Lev Grossman says The Magician King will be out August 9.

* How to manufacture stuff in the U.S.: raise the status of the stuff’s place of origin. This is being written by a guy who has a Tom Bihn (made in Washington State!) messenger bag, so it worked on me.

* Deadbeats and Turnips: understand who can actually pay child support, since sending people who can’t pay to jail is counterproductive.

The basic problem is this: someone (usually the father) can’t pay child support. Virtually all states now send you to jail if you can’t pay court-ordered child support. Sending people to jail has lots of obvious negative effects on the ability to find and keep a job. So you get out of jail, can’t find a job, still have to pay child support and. . . go to jail again.

* How Western Diets Are Making The World Sick. This should be obvious to anyone who’s read Michael Pollan.

* The real science gap, which mirrors Philip Greenspun’s Women in Science. The short version: science is great but science careers are terrible and getting worse. Smart students figure this out and do something other than science PhD programs. Remember this next time someone is bemoaning the lack of American scientists.

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