You know, contrary to popular opinion, there were wizards in literature prior to the release of the Harry Potter series. Take, for instance, the centuries-old character of Merlyn, teacher and court magician to King Arthur-clad in blue robes, spectacles perched upon the end of his long nose-the contemporary image of Merlyn is that of the consummate wizard. Though mention of him can be found throughout the annals of literature, my personal favorite Merlyn novels are The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlyn, both by T.H. White.
Christopher Priest’s extraordinary novel, The Prestige, tells the story of a different sort of wizard altogether: A pair of Victorian-era London stage magicians whose rivalry leads them to cross the known boundaries of their profession … where deception, science and real magic cannot be told apart. Dueling wizards may also be found in Susanna Clarke’s epic 2004 historical fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which, in my mind, is one of the most compelling books of the last century. Though I heartily recommend that you read each of the titles listed above, the book that I most want each of you, dear readers, to rush out and buy this instant, is Lev Grossman’s wondrous novel The Magicians. Now, since I’ve given you a copious amount of random background leading up to this, let me tell you why I think Grossman has written one of the best and most important books on magic — possibly ever.
Quentin Coldwater is, in many ways, a painfully average high school senior: bored, socially shy, moody and utterly unsure of his place in the world. While his staggeringly-high IQ and fondness for magic tricks set him apart from his classmates, it is Quentin’s fascination with a fantasy series called Fillory and Further (Grossman’s tip of the hat to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia) that makes him feel set apart from the world. Quentin describes what he experiences each time he reads the Fillory stories as “…like opening the covers of a book, but a book that did what books always promised to do and never actually quite did: get you out, really out, of where you were and into somewhere better.” On some level Quentin has always wanted to live in the pages of these books, where “Happiness was a real, actual, achievable possibility. It came when you called. Or no, it never left you in the first place.” Though he knows that the books are fiction, Quentin can’t let go of the nagging feeling that he is meant to be somewhere else — living a different sort of life. When he stumbles upon the entrance to the campus of Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy hidden in an unkempt Manhattan community garden, Quentin is curious but relatively unsurprised — after all, wasn’t this what he had secretly yearned for his entire life?
Hardcore fantasy geeks will recognize this classic plot line: An extremely intelligent young person who is a bit of a social misfit discovers a door/portal/rabbit hole/wardrobe/sewer grate/TARDIS that leads him or her to a magical realm. The inhabitants of this magical realm are locked in an ages-old battle of good versus evil, and the protagonist becomes caught up in this battle due to prophecy/heroism/idiocy. EPIC ADVENTURES ensue, and the protagonist returns to his or her world having learned important lessons from talking marsupials or realizing that if they possess the ability to tame a dragon, they can also handle the class bully. Quentin’s experiences at Brakebills are plenty magical, but they are also breathtakingly accurate. All of the things that you suspected went on behind closed doors at Hogwart’s — cheating, drinking, sex, gossip, depression — can be found at Brakebills. There is no Big Bad to contend with — at least not until the end of the book — so Quentin and his friends are free to be as selfish and indulgent as they like. Their hedonism continues even after graduation, as the young magicians begin their adult lives in New York City.
What I find intriguing about this novel is that magic is not treated as a cure-all. Grossman doesn’t make the assumption that the existence of magic (or religion, or love, or wealth…) will automatically make a person whole. With the discovery of Brakebills, Quentin’s most ardent wish is fulfilled, yet he is left unsatisfied. It is in our nature to want to be curious, to aspire, to seek. We are complicated creatures and we are hardwired with equally complex biological and psychological imperatives: The fulfillment of one desire simply makes way for the next. Our expectations are tempered somewhat by the existence of reality: It is highly unlikely that we will actually marry that celebrity/take over the world/win the Kentucky Derby riding a unicorn. That we secretly wish for the unattainable is a good thing — it gives us hope and makes us humble at the same time. Works of fiction, however, are pretty elastic when it comes to what is and is not possible. This makes for fun escapist reading but it doesn’t really teach us anything about what it means to be human, which is why Lev Grossman’s novel is something akin to real magic. The Magicians is a perceptive, thoughtful novel that explores the nature of desire and asks the question: If all of your dreams came true, what would you be left with?
Lev Grossman reads from and signs copies of The Magician at a wine and cheese reception held at Malaprop's on Sunday, June 6. 5 p.m., free.