Harry Potter Gone Bad: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians

The Magicians
by Lev Grossman
(Viking, August 2009)

What would happen if you took the wonder out of a book about magic and magicians?

It’s a bit like exploring what’s left after you remove faith and mystery from religion. For some scholars, method in religion involves just this: sapping it of these messy, elusive ingredients until it’s bone dry and brittle to the touch—and doing so with gusto. The difficult-to-codify is the enemy of many an academic, and often considered the enemy of the cold, hard-to-swallow truth, too; the less awe, the less wonder, the less emotion, the closer you get to the essence of what is truly real.

Likewise, writers and critics of literary fiction are often wary of too much joy, happy endings, and otherworldliness—particularly when they lead to sentimental scenarios featuring bravery, hope, or the power of love to conquer all. Isn’t that what genre fiction is for, after all? Or children’s literature?

Bubbling up under the surface of The Magicians (the latest novel from Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman) is the stuff of these same sincere elements—the kind many readers relish when looking to escape with a good book. On first glance, he offers us not only a world filled with magic, but a school for young magicians, the adventures of aspiring young sorcerers, magical creatures and spells, fantastic landscapes galore, and a parallel world called Fillory (not unlike C.S. Lewis’ Narnia). Yet Grossman’s capacity to land a novel about such things squarely within the coveted, respectable category of literary fiction—as he has certainly done—appears to have come at a cost.

Initially, I believed I was Grossman’s ideal reader: a person who adores the fantastic, someone for whom Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, the Harry Potter series, and Elizabeth Knox’s extraordinary fantasy duet Dreamhunter and Dreamquake number among my greatest reads. So I opened The Magicians eagerly, poised to lose myself in a story the Times called “a Harry Potter for adults,” only to realize several chapters in that the aptly-named Quentin Coldwater (a boy with a talent for spells and sorcery who is whisked away to a secret school for magic called “Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy”) was, chapter by chapter, systematically killing off all the reasons I picked it up in the first place.

The Magicians plays out something like the following genre mash-up: Imagine plucking Chuck Bass and a few of his nearest and dearest billionaire friends from Gossip Girl, and placing them straight into the Great Hall at the start of a new year at Hogwarts, with Dumbledore in the middle of his heartwarming welcome to students. In this situation, Chuck Bass would light a cigar, take out a flask, tell Dumbledore to get a life, and try to get at least two first-year girls into bed by night’s end—preferably at the same time. Alas, it is not difficult to imagine Quentin, “[the] slacker Park Slope Harry Potter,” and his fellow magician friends (the perpetually bored and drunk) Eliot, (the brazen, oversexed) Janet and other prep school characters doing exactly this.

The one exception is Alice, a gifted young magician who bears the weight of sincerity, courage, hope, goodness, and love; all at once, and on everyone’s behalf. She takes up with Quentin, presumably to save him from himself. Yet, she not only pays the ultimate price for her trust in Quentin and his friends but, when all is said and done, barely makes a dent in his character.

In effect, and similar to an old-school scholar of religion, Grossman takes on the fantasy genre (replete with its magical objects, spells, sorcerers, parallel words, quests, fantastic creatures, and seemingly tireless and blessed heroines and heroes) with the apparent intent to dismantle it, unveiling the ugly, mundane reality behind the facade. Indeed, no matter where Quentin Coldwater goes—Brakebills, New York City, and eventually Fillory, the imagined land from his favorite childhood books—the gods are pathetic, the teachers incompetent, the quests pointless and the adventurers jaded and quick to become bored or discouraged, turning to drink, drugs, and meaningless sex to dull the pain.

In fairness, Quentin Coldwater does face an awfully discouraging world. While he is eager at first to see magic’s pure core in all its glory, he comes to find out that the naked truth about it and its practitioners is altogether dismaying: at every turn he is made to learn that the grand, meaningful magician’s life of his imagination is all a big ruse. It doesn’t matter which path he chooses. Whether to go back to Brooklyn and his non-magical roots, or to enter into a life of practicing magic: either one ends with him hovering over an abyss. Even Fillory is a tragic failure. No matter why or where or with how many cocktails in his system, Quentin and his friends come up against a distressing end to their story; the moral apparently being that if they don’t find meaning along the way, it certainly won’t be found at the destination they so desperately, if drunkenly, pursued. The meaning is in the journey itself, Grossman seems to be telling us.

Only Alice seems equipped to handle this truth.

Likewise, Grossman forces readers to remain after graduation is long past, and after the battles fought and not necessarily won. He makes us sit and stare at the wreckage, the gruesome aftermath, facing the growing ennui and, in some cases, the total despair of these young magicians. This novel revels in the idea that, in “reality,” even for a magician, life is one long, unpleasant burden. Perhaps Grossman is right to turn a harsh, fluorescent light on magic and wonder. Or perhaps his characters are the real problem, lashing out at us from the page in a sloppy, bratty rage, tearing at any naive hope we might have brought to this story; their main quest seemingly to rob us of these and teach us the lesson that Harry Potter probably ended up hating himself, and life, after the end of book seven, likely taking a desk job as a clerk pushing paper and trying to make ends meet.

The lack of sincerity in both the story and its characters is The Magicians’ Achilles heel.

But maybe Grossman can’t win. Whereas sincerity in adult, literary fiction is often slammed by critics as naivete, it’s rewarded in children’s fiction whose target readers are still trying to gain enough courage to face the basic challenges of growing up. Even Phillip Pullman’s literary masterpiece, His Dark Materials, which plays with and subverts the familiar tropes of fantasy literature yet refuses to sacrifice wonder and a triumphant end, will continue to be dismissed or ignored by many adult readers simply because it’s shelved in the children’s section. 

And though not every reader is like me, there are many others for whom the magic is the point. Banish such a virtue from a book about magic and magicians, and you will disappoint these same readers—young or old—likely to pick up your novel. The great irony about The Magicians is that, given all the allusions and homages to these other books of magic, it’s abundantly clear that the novels of J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis are beloved by Grossman.

So if and when you read The Magicians, know that Grossman’s intent is to show you the seedy underbelly of magic, how its practitioners are really rich, bored, and bratty prep-school kids, and why fantastic worlds—upon close inspection—are less than fantastic after all. But be reassured, too, that when you turn the last page and set it aside, perhaps depressed and empty, there are many other magical stories that await you, ones that keep the curtain firmly in place, so that once again you the reader might be transported by their otherworldliness, the possibility of goodness, sincerity, and the belief that love may indeed conquer all; where courageous heroines and heroes will see things through until the very end; and where wonder not only still lives but sparkles like the night sky, leaving us with a magnificent, breathtaking sense of awe.