Who would have thought a story about a school about magic and alternate worlds could be so disappointing?
Have you ever had a book sweep you away completely? Has a world grabbed your attention and catch your mind, in such a way that it makes you think hard about the world you live in and how you yourself are living?
I hope that’s happened at least once to you guys, but if it hasn’t, imagine that it has. Imagine a book has caught your attention in just such a way. You’re reading it, and you believe this book could be a ground-breaker for you, one that you’ll have to tell your friends about and make sure they read.
Now imagine that as the story is progressing towards its finale that it’s beginning to falter. It’s as if the author is jamming on the brakes, trying to halt the progress and potential power of the ideas that drew you in. You wonder if the story was maybe meant to take another direction, another turning, or even go on much longer than it did. And when the tale finally comes to a halt, you’re left deeply unsatisfied, as if a tour guide pulled you into a blind alley and back into the tour center even as you can see the rest of the town you were supposed to explore.
This is what happened to me as I read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.
The story began from the point of view of a jaded young man, Quentin Coldwater- who has everything our society deems necessary for future success. He’s intelligent, on his way to being interviewed for Princeton as the novel opens, has friends and lives in comfort. He’s in what high school students are told is the ideal position to begin the rest of his life.
For him it’s not enough to give that life any meaning.
When he stumbles through a gateway of sorts to a school in the middle of upper-state New York, he finds himself in an examining room. He is being tested on his abilities to perform magic- and he succeeds well enough to be admitted to the college. As he learns magic and forms friendships at his school, there’s a growing sense that there’s a darker side to this place where Quentin believes he’s found his ideal home. Gradually his sense of disquiet grows- and as incidents of magic gone awry begin to occur more and more frequently, it seems implied that he’s been pulled into something that he never fully understood. Throughout it all, his struggle to see any point to his life keeps growing. Even with magic, he’s still discontented and groundless. He had been raised on stories of magical quests and enchantment- and is consequently increasingly bitter over the fact that his newfound magical abilities are not enough to give his life the meaning he seeks.
But the ending of the story seems very much to shy away from everything that it had earlier implied. I don’t want to give it away, but I will say that throughout the whole of the story it had been made very clear that magic and adventure was not enough to give Quentin’s life meaning. He had thought that they would be his ticket to escape the overall futility of the way he’d been living. Yet they don’t give him the meaning he needs so badly. And the main reason this resonated with me is that I have seen people who look at their lives- very successful ones, with a great deal of achievement- and don’t see the point. I’ve been in that position myself. I know what it feels like to believe that your life just doesn’t have an overall purpose and that there is no point in trying to do anything with it.
The way the novel ended would not have fixed this for Quentin.
When I was reading Quentin’s desperate struggle to try and find some meaning in his life, my very first thought was that much of this lay in his conviction that his human existence was the only thing he had to look forward to and use for meaning. For him, there was nothing else in the world other than his own miserable life that at some point would come to an end. He looked to magic as the way to gain some sort of meaning in his life, and found that it didn’t answer. He looks to sex, to the fantasy world of his childhood that he found to be real, and none of them answer. I was legitimately expecting him to find some sort of worth in his life that lay beyond that- and though his sense of worth wouldn’t have needed to come from a religious experience necessarily, there should have been something. And there wasn’t.
In my experience of doubting the worth and meaning of the things I did with my life, it was religion that got me through it. I’m not going to say that I don’t ever experience struggles with my faith and keeping it as I go through my life. I do. But speaking as someone who had a very difficult time with the exact sort of spiritual emptiness Quentin did, I’m certain that what was presented as a solution for him would not have been enough. And as I said, his solution wouldn’t have needed to be religiously oriented- but there should have been an acknowledgement or understanding that what the magic and his abilities alone simply weren’t enough to lend him the meaning he sought.
This book did have a couple problems from a non-metaphysical stand-point as well. The entire backstory of Fillory, the fantasy land Quentin read about as a child, was very obviously ripped from the Narnia books, which was irritating when Grossman had done such a good job making his story original in other respects. I could also see people being irritated by the characters; they were rather abrasive, though I liked reading about them. The pacing of the last parts of the book felt very deeply rushed, though I honestly believe this has something to do with the unsatisfying nature of the ending that had been written.
All in all, I really wanted to like The Magicians, and for a while was convinced I would. But it fell short of what it could have been in the most disappointing way possible, and for that reason, I’m probably going to be reluctant to pick it up again. I know that I’ll start it and it will captivate me, making me think, hoping for a resolution- a resolution that will never really come.