Monday, May 7, 2012

The Magicians by Lev Grossman: Fantastical Boredom at its Finest

Have you ever read a story that had all the elements you like—good characterization, great writing, unique plots, interesting magic—and still didn't like the book? That was The Magicians by Lev Grossman for me.

There is no disputing that Grossman can write. The man has never met an adjective he didn't like, and yet, that doesn't detract from the storytelling. His world was filled with vivid imagery, flushed with detail. I "read" this novel as an audio book over the course of five months, and the story remained crisp in my mind every time I tuned back in for another ten or twenty minutes of listening.

Yet, it was this same attention to detail that sucked the enjoyment from much of the story for me. With excruciating detail, Grossman explains the extreme boredom, disinterest, and unhappiness of Quentin, the main character. And right along with Quentin, I was bored, disinterested, and unhappy.

Perhaps this is an example of identifying too closely with the character. Every time Quentin began to whine about how bored he was, how pointless everything in his life was, I found myself thinking, Why am I reading this? If I wanted to be bored with something pointless, I'd dust the baseboards or alphabetize the canned goods. The novel was filled with fantastical ideas, beautifully wrought slices of Grossman's imagination that were compelling and intriguing, and yet, with the main character moping along in his bored, woe-is-me state, I found myself irritated with the novel as often as I was interested. (Hence, the five months to get through the audio files.)

[As a side note, Quentin's boredom is exactly opposite of "The Spielberg Face," a phenomenon that I like to think induces people to appreciate Spielberg's movies more. It's like an subliminal message sent by the character to the audience.

As humans, we are masters at mirroring others' emotions. In effect, "The Spielberg Face" elicits a corresponding response in the audience, making them think, if only for a moment, that there is something awe-inspiring about what they're watching. Maybe there is, maybe there isn't. But having this brief subliminal connection with the audience definitely doesn't hurt Spielberg's movies; were the characters to show as much boredom as Quentin, I wonder if audiences would mimic that emotion, too.]

The most interesting part of the novel, for me, ended up being that in explaining Quentin's drive in high school, his obsession with getting really good at magic tricks, and his unending quest to be the best, Grossman tapped into my psyche on a level I've never fully articulated, not even to myself. I was Quentin in high school.

I'm not striving for vanity or modesty with that statement. Nor am I trying to say I was or am a magician of any type. What I mean is, I was the 4.0+ straight-A student obsessed with perfection in my studies while simultaneously hating the part of me that drove me with such agonizing relentlessness. I lacked a genuine goal (much like Quentin). I knew how to take tests. I knew how to study. I took all the honors classes. But I didn't see the real purpose behind them. I was following the rules with self-induced tunnel vision that I wouldn't cast off until well after college.

As delightful as it was to receive unexpected insight into myself from a fantasy novel, it wasn't enough to make me love the book. I finished it with a sense of relief that it was finally over. The novel was strangely dark, both off-putting and boring, yet entertaining enough to finish. I doubt I'll read the second novel, but I'm not sorry to have read this one.

In a groundswell of ambivalence, I'd recommend this novel, but only if you don't have anything else to read.

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