The Reading Room: Magical Mixture of Reality and Fantasy
By Miranda Marraccini ’12, Staff Writer
Quentin Coldwater, hero of “The Magicians,” is a type familiar to most Amherst students. Some of us even were him: a high-achieving high school senior from Brooklyn who is very good at standardized tests and admissions interviews and very bad at being happy. He relieves a life of rigorous mundanity by reading and rereading a fictional series of children’s fantasy novels much like those of C. S. Lewis.

Quentin isn’t delusional; he knows magic doesn’t exist. Until it does. One day he slips through the back wall of a scratchy urban garden and ends up at Brakebills, America’s premier college of magic. Suddenly, stunningly, Quentin achieves his heart’s desire — but just as rapidly, he discovers that magic isn’t all about wand-waving. It turns out that to learn magic you need things like Calculus and a working knowledge of Middle High Dutch, not to mention years of back-breaking, repetitive, thesis-level labor. Quentin studies about 18 hours a day, intensively and, for one semester, in Antarctica.

Brakebills isn’t all work, however. “The Magicians” is emphatically a novel about young people, who have sex in common rooms and drink incredible amounts of hard liquor and generally behave like unwise college students. Being a magician doesn’t eliminate postgraduate malaise either. If anything, it enables aimlessness: entirely funded by magic, Quentin and his friends roam around New York, getting high and planning pointless expensive parties in their penthouse until an opportunity for adventure thrusts them into a new, dangerous reality. The dark magical world they only glimpsed at Brakebills rears up with bloody, grisly, devastating force.

The last hundred pages are grim and scary, almost enough to make you forget the ebullience of the first three hundred. Because as hard as he tries, Grossman never quite makes the prospect of a rigorous magical education seem unpalatable. Even after all the booze and betrayal and menace slipping silently through crevices in the school’s cozy exterior, even after all the blood and final exams, I still want to go to Brakebills. As much as I wanted to go to Hogwarts and Narnia. More, in fact, because I can imagine myself there without subtracting crude language and sex and unhappiness and all the other things that make up life outside of children’s books.

Grossman’s plot is among the truly great — tight, exciting, and complex — but it isn’t even the best quality of the novel. The novel’s real strength is its realism. You don’t need to suspend your disbelief because disbelief is already suspended: Grossman’s characters walk around joking about Quidditch robes and time turners, aware of how fictional their lives have unexpectedly become. “This shit isn’t even mythological,” Quentin’s friend Josh complains of the creatures they meet during their final adventure. “We need some unicorns or something up in this piece.” Quentin “is constantly comparing what happens to him to what happens in books,” Grossman said at a recent reading. It makes sense, coming from an author who claims to have slogged through graduate school constantly “reflecting on how poorly the novels of C. S. Lewis had prepared me for later life.” By making his characters skeptics, Grossman makes believers of us all.

Yet, at times, the cynicism seems overdone, overwhelming. No sooner does Quentin travel to the next plateau of magical fulfillment than he becomes disillusioned and dissatisfied: “as soon as he seized happiness it dispersed and reappeared somewhere else.” It may be real, but it’s exhausting reading. Quentin’s love, Alice, tries to snap him out of it, “Stop looking for the secret door that is going to lead you to your real life… This is it: there’s 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.” I felt the same frustration with Quentin and wished that the book wasn’t quite so intentionally circular and murky.

The end of the book, and by that I mean the last three pages really, is the only part of the book immune from this persistent, numb unhappiness. But it also feels tacked-on, a set -up designed to restart the action after a slow dénouement, readying the reader for a sequel in 2011. I would be more annoyed if I didn’t want to read the sequel quite so desperately.

Both sincere and self-aware, and gorgeously, inventively written, “The Magicians” is a fantasy for realists. If you waited to receive a letter from Hogwarts that never came, if you scrabbled at the backs of wardrobes for the touch of a snowy fir, if you scoured sidewalks for magic coins and mysterious letters, then you should read it. But if you never understood what everyone was looking for in these invisible worlds, then you must read it. You might almost believe it.

Issue 10, Submitted 2010-12-01 00:48:49