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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JS: Why a rare example?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JS: I feel like I met you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JS: It seems very easy.

LG: It seems very easy, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JS: What made it tedious?

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

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

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

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

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

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

LG: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LG: That’s great.

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

LG: I don’t know.

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

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


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

JS: So the rejection never stops.

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

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

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

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

LG: No.

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


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

LG: I suppose it’s inevitable.

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

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

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

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

JS: Funny how that can happen.

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

JS: Did you try The Sot-Weed Factor?

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

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

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

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

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

JS: Bummer. […]

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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