Rereadings: ‘The Magicians’ by Lev Grossman
Five years ago, I sat on a train heading northward feeling both exhilarated and somewhat terrified. I had just quit my job, my very first job out of college, and was speeding homeward through upstate New York for a visit with family before departing for England and graduate school. I had a full day’s train journey ahead of me and a pile of books beside me.
When I booked the ticket, the slow pace of train travel seemed like the perfect way to disconnect from the rush of Manhattan and the last-minute tying up of loose ends attendant upon leaving a job. Now, as the tracks disappeared ahead and behind me, I was mired in swirling thoughts, worries, and hopes. I was excited, mostly, for the next step in my carefully-plotted-since-college Life Plan to begin. But that excitement was mixed with the trepidation that comes with any next step: what would it be like? Would I like it as much as I imagined I would? Would it all be worth leaving my life in New York behind?
In this state of mind, I pulled Lev Grossman’s The Magicians out of my satchel. I wanted — no, I needed — to get away, even for just a few hours, from the looping thoughts in my own head. I needed an escape and I was hoping The Magicians would get me there. So, ignoring the large woman in the seat next to me who noisily chomped away on various foodstuffs for the entirety of our voyage, I opened the book and quietly disappeared into another world.
I’ve written about my first time reading The Magicians (and how unabashedly I loved it) before. This book was everything it promised and then somehow ten times better. I couldn’t recommend it enough. I wanted to read it again immediately after finishing it (the ultimate, and rare, sign of bookish adoration) and flailed in my blogging attempts to express just how good it was. The Magicians got me through that train trip and saw me off into my own brave new world across the ocean.
Five years have passed since then and, lately, I found myself in a similar life moment: quitting a job, heading upstate, and going back to graduate school. In the intervening years between first reading The Magicians and the present, Lev Grossman had published two further books, making it a proper trilogy. I’m the kind of reader content to wait until a series is complete, rather than suffer through long waits between books, so I had held out and not touched The Magician King or The Magician’s Land. Now, in my present moment of life-change and uncertainty, the time was ripe to revisit the world of Brakebills and Fillory to see the whole thing through from beginning to end.
I almost can’t believe it, but, readers, The Magicians actually got better.
In my desire to escape and simply enjoy reading it the first time around, I somehow missed the existential, distinctly “Odyssey Years Read” aspects of The Magicians. The first time, I just loved the in-jokey, self-referential world Grossman created. He batted around between his own versions of Narnia and Hogwarts, clearly reveling in it and enjoying injecting some darker realities into each. But, the second time out, I had the luxury of already having been charmed by the world itself and the references before, so I was able to recognize and appreciate the deeper themes Grossman offers up.
Apart from the obvious questions about the value of magic in an individual life (and in the world more generally), The Magicians debates the value, and purpose, of happiness and unhappiness. Our hero Quentin searches unceasingly for happiness, for the perfect life he’s “supposed” to have, but always comes up short.
Late in the book, the ever-wise Alice calls him, and dare I say all Odyssey Years travelers, out on it:
‘I will stop being a mouse, Quentin. [says Alice] I will take some chances. If you will, for just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there is nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.’
‘You can’t just decide to be happy.’
‘No, you can’t. But you can sure as hell decide to be miserable.’
This focus on the conundrum of what to do and how to be happy really struck me this time around. It made the book seem more generationally applicable than the first time around, when I read it as an exceptionally enjoyable work of fantasy fiction and nothing more.
Similarly, Quentin was both more irritating and more real as a person in my second read. Get over it! I mentally shouted at him, while at the same time empathizing, if not with his methods (mainly confined to getting drunk, hurting those he loves, and brooding), than with his base feelings of being adrift and perhaps so far down the wrong Life Path that you can’t even tell if it is wrong or if you’re on the right path and just doing it incorrectly.
In re-reading The Magicians, I got the comforting escapism I was craving and remembered so fondly from my first read, but I was also given wonderful insight into the dangers of focusing too much on the end-goal (happiness) and not enough on the journey. If you’re constantly looking forward to when things will be perfect, you miss all that is already wonderful around you. In short: you don’t need magic to live your life fully.
– Anyone else crazy-impressed with the speed of Grossman’s plotting? Quentin’s entire education (i.e. essentially all seven of the Harry Potter books) is only the first half of the book, the next section is a huge magical world adventure (i.e. essentially all Narnia books), and, at the very end, just when you think everything should finally be settling down into denouement territory, Quentin embarks on an epic quest for a mythical stag. Any single story in The Magicians could be a book all of its own, but, thanks to Grossman’s tight plotting and nimble narrative jumps, it all fits together in one heck of a good book.
– ALICE. I have a lot of feelings about Alice, as I did the first time around, but this time I was a little more frustrated with her spotty character development. Is she a near-mute introvert genius or is she a sassy counterpoint to Quentin’s moods? I appreciate that a person can be more than one thing, and Alice by the end of the book certainly reconciled these parts of herself, but in general her character seemed to jump around, alternately spouting snark and being too terrified to speak, an awful lot.
– Words cannot express fully my love of fake history and bibliography (see also: Special Topics in Calamity Physics), so I can’t help but link to io9’s “biography of Christopher Plover” by the excellent Andrew Liptak.