Grossman, Lev, The Magicians, Arrow Books, London, 2009
Grossman’s novel begins full of promise. The story is gripping as it follows the archetype of the boy who discovers he really is the magician he dreamed he was. There’s a magic in stories that carry their readers off to other worlds. Then the story flatten’s out. Behind what turns out to be a cardboard facade there is nothing and, with that discovery, the magic of the story seeps sadly away. This lack of depth and the failure to engage the reader is clearly due to the choices made by the author.
A large part of Grossman’s narrative construction is built around a poor mash-up of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories. The author has the main character longing to enter that world and once he makes it there, he and his colleagues are constantly stepping out of the story, asking themselves what they should do in it. This is also the case at many other moments in Grossman’s book. The theme of being unable to remain within a story or life itself would certainly make for interesting social critique. This may not have been Grossman’s intention, but he constantly has his characters wondering about how they will be perceived in the story and whether they are up to scratch. This leads the reader to be constantly pulled out of the story. The result is not only frustrating but casts doubts on the credibility of the story. Deliberately ejecting the reader is a risky business, for, once outside, he or she begins to notice the flaws and there are many of them.
It doesn’t help that Grossman seems to intensely dislike magic. He makes every effort to leech all the magic and excitement and pleasure out of magic, reducing it to tedium and repetition. Some magicians pursue noble social causes but most either undertake futile, pseudoscientific quests or are disabused and indulge in drink and drugs unable to cope with the pointlessness of their lives. The main character, Quentin, is portrayed as a misguided believer in the excitement and joy of magic, in the quest and in the battle of good against evil, but then veers into disbelief and scepticism. The dismantling of magic begins in the school of magic Quentin attends: from the hilarious pointlessness of the entrance exam to the isolation of the school, that leaves future magicians totally unprepared for what happens when they graduate. No wonder so many magicians end up completely lost in life, not knowing what to do.
About three-quarters through the book, Alice, one of the characters says: “Wake up. This isn’t a story? It’s just one fucking thing after another!” The author may well have meant Alice to incite her fellow characters to stop wondering about whether or not they were in a story and just live it. But with the constant succession of disconnected events that burst inexplicably from the pages with little relationship to what went before or comes after, the reader begins to wonder if Alice isn’t talking about the book itself. This impression is strengthened by the fact that the characters are barely etched out, and the weakness of the relationships between people, even when they are built on passion.
So what went wrong? My guess is that the author lost the feeling for the story after the initial chapters and was forced to pile unrelated effect on effect to try to fill the resulting void until, unexpectedly, he rediscovered his lost thread towards the end of the book, and with it rekindled the story magic, if only temporarily.