[personal profile] floorpigeon
What does it mean to want magic so much it hurts? Can you write an escapist novel about escapism? Do you really have to grow up, and what does that mean, anyway? Can you deconstruct wonder and have it mean anything when you face its loss?

That's the sort of thing Lev Grossman's 'The Magicians' tries to take on. It seems a lot of fantasy readers have extremely touchy reactions to the book, which shouldn't have surprised me, but did. As someone quite used to dark fantasy, to piling on the angst in my fics, and to generally seeing how far I can deconstruct everything I love, it startles me to remember this is kind of a limited-appeal hobby even in fandom. It startles me to realize people mean escape when they say escape. This is the one way I truly differ from the hero of Grossman's book and from these genre fans: they read fantasy to be happy in a completely straightforward, uncomplicated way, the way you take a shower 'cause it feels good.
    I passionately love magic, and stories, and stories about magic and stories about stories (all of which 'The Magicians' delivers on), and I also love messed-up self-destructive teenage boys, so it's a no-brainer I love 'The Magicians'. I always wanted fantasy worlds to be real with a crazed intensity, but I never really thought it'd make me happy, exactly, just... happier. Anyway, reality has always been a bitter pill. It startles me that people genuinely think you can write a novel that truly addresses people's feelings on it (ie, depression, loneliness, etc) without being itself sad and frustrating. That is, realism isn't nihilism, but writing third-person-limited about a depressed guy, you can only go so far, right. It's just that it seems there are 'rules' about fantasy as a genre that you either play by or pay for. I think people like GRRM get away with extreme grimness because they don't also attack the reader at the meta angle, so there's this element of remove. Many die, good people lose, but you're just observing it, so it's not really about you. This book, 'The Magicians'-- it's about you, the fantasy fan. You're right there. You lose... well, no, you just have to think seriously about losing.

I do think the criticism I've seen that the book doesn't resolve the conflicts it sets up in its main character is valid. On the other hand, I think that the whole point of the character is that unresolved conflict, within him and within the reader. Overall, it also had the problem of relying overmuch on recognizable archetypes, but I'm the sort of reader that enjoys it when they're done creatively, with some twist here and there (and they were). In the end, I've always loved books that are about books, and about readers. I know that's kind of masturbatory, but I find it deeper than most other reading experiences, and more satisfying. A hall of ever-reflecting mirrors.

I find the idea of reading fantasy simply to get away again (like to the Hamptons) to be mind-numbing. It's never been the purity in Harry Potter I've liked, but the darkness; not the predictability, but the startling bits of whimsy and pathos. I mean, all that stuff about Sirius and Remus and Snape and Slytherin in general: tell me that's not hopeless and nihilistic, I beg you. It is. I think the kernel of darkness and hopelessness, of depression, that need for redemption raw and unretouched, is at the heart of the mythologizing impulse. It may make people uncomfortable to see it exposed, but it's the heart of fairyland. That hopeless, red beating heart of loss and longing and despair. That's encapsulated perfectly in Titania's smile, always sharp-edged and secretly bitter. Faery can never be kind, or it's not faery, it's religion.

I think the reason people may be unhappy is that 'The Magicians' lacks the bright side of the moon, so to speak: that other defining aspect of fairy-tales that Tolkien spoke of, the eucatastrophe or redemption. People really do read these stories for a sense of release, a religious impulse to be comforted, to be reassured that even after extreme suffering, we learn and grow and turn into our real selves. But there were many times when I appreciated 'The Magicians' because I can tell Grossman loves it just as much as I love it, and that makes it ok for him to say the hard things. I can tell he's struggled with it too. I think the wisest thing in the book alone makes it worthwhile: the idea that magicians get their power from the pieces in themselves that feel broken, that sense of disconnection between themselves and reality. It's only when reality hurts, when you think you're broken, that you need to mess with it on a fundamental level. Of course you love it, of course you do. Yes. I know he loves magic too. But fundamentally, it's a broken relationship, a little trapped feedback loop of pain and longing and creativity. And that's ok. Art's like that too, in many ways. But it's not, y'know, necessarily pretty.

It's funny for me that for some people it is simple; they grow up and they still like fantasy, and it's not a threat to reality, to their grown-up lives at all. It's those people, I think, that need it to be pure childish escape, that worry about contamination and lack of satisfaction the most. To me, fairy-tales always felt threatening and overwhelming and painful and beautiful, because I wanted to believe in them. And that's what I know Grossman understands, and all those self-proclaimed 'grown-up' fantasy fans recoiling from his book do not. I wonder if you're even a fan of the same genre if you love fairy-tales without a pang, without a sense of loss, or at least a pained nostalgia. In fact, I feel that Romanticism in general has its roots in this unity of pained nostalgia and cultural rejection, optimism and nihilism. Both are necessary to the lifeblood of magic.

I did think 'The Magicians' stumbled at the end, didn't really earn its somewhat hopeful ending. I also felt the same way about Adam Stemple's 'Singer of Souls' and its horribly depressing ending. I think it's actually excruciatingly difficult to write a plausible denouement to an emotionally intense bildungsroman (just look at 'Catcher in the Rye'). The best you can even do is have it not really end, I think. Any real ending ends up feeling tacked on, unearned, or overly cheerful (to me), and even at best ('Great Expectations') it's bittersweet and vaguely unsatisfying. I dunno, maybe it's just me, but I've come to expect it on some level, and focus more on the process. The magic is always in beginnings rather than in the endings.


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the one who stumbled

January 2015

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