August 21, 2014
(++++) WHERE MAGIC BLOOMS
The Magician’s Land. By Lev Grossman. Viking. $27.95.
Coming-of-age books have a bad reputation, largely deserved and largely of their own making. Modern fantasy books, ditto. But every once in a while, a coming-of-age fantasy transcends both genres – while remaining firmly within them – and shows that these approaches to fiction, when handled with a paucity of cliché and a large helping of creativity, still have a lot to offer to readers. So it is with The Magician’s Land, which completes the trilogy that Lev Grossman started with The Magicians and continued with The Magician King. Far from a Harry-Potter-esque story despite some obvious resemblances, Grossman’s trilogy is a coming-of-age tale for adults who have already been buffeted by life and experienced love and loss, wounds and healings. It is built around a kind of matter-of-fact magic that does not so much transform the world as coexist with it – while providing the very basis of another world, Fillory, that is initially reached in tried-and-true C.S. Lewis fashion through the back of a grandfather clock but that turns out to be far richer, stranger and more psychologically (and less religiously) focused than Narnia (despite, again, some obvious resemblances).
Grossman creates a world where some characters can do magic and some are magic, and the distinction is as crucial as it is difficult to explain. In this concluding book of the series, events move apace both in Fillory and on Earth – the latter not being “the real world,” since the two worlds are equally real – as well as in the Neitherlands, which, as their name indicates, are in neither the Fillory universe nor that of Earth. The universe of these books is one where Grossman, who is ever adept at turning a phrase, tosses off a line about “one of the small unfairnesses of magic” and, sure enough, shows repeatedly, in large ways as well as small ones, just how unfair magic (and, by extension, life) can be. Grossman’s universe is one in which the characters themselves are quite aware of, and often exposed to, the rudiments of magic and fairy tales as used elsewhere, but one in which those traditional clichés of the fantasy/coming-of-age genre are inadequate, if not irrelevant: “Here was a perpetual motion machine, and a pair of seven-thousand-league boots. He showed them one drop of universal solvent, which no vessel could contain and thus had to be kept magically suspended in midair. He showed them magic beans, and a pen that would write only the truth, and a mouse that aged backward, and a goose that laid eggs in gold, silver, platinum, and iridium. He spun straw into gold and turned the gold into lead. It was the end of every fairy tale, all the prizes for which knights and princes had fought and died and clever princesses had guessed riddles and kissed frogs.” But it is not enough; none of it is enough. Not for the man showing it – a banished, isolated genius of a magician derailed and exiled because of love, lust or their combination – and not for the man to whom he shows everything: Quentin Coldwater.
Quentin, whose story does indeed throw cold water on many fantasy and coming-of-age tropes, is the central character both on Earth and in Fillory, even though he has been banished from the latter – where the friends he has left behind speak and think of him often, making him a continued presence even in his absence. It is Quentin the immature, Quentin the uncertain, Quentin the occasional hero, Quentin the damaged and misunderstood, Quentin the reluctantly self-aware, Quentin who is at times anomie-laced and at others desperately unhappy, around whom Grossman’s story revolves – but Quentin too refuses to descend into cliché, for all the opportunities he has to do so. Quentin is always on the verge of realizing that he is a character in a story, and perhaps not a very compelling one: “When he graduated [from Brakebills, the not-much-like-Hogwarts school where magic is taught] he’d thought life was going to be like a novel, starring him on his own personal hero’s journey, and that the world would provide him with an endless series of evils to triumph over and life lessons to learn. It took him a while to figure out that wasn’t how it worked.”
And yet, remarkably, that is how The Magician’s Land and the trilogy it concludes work. Other characters here also wonder what story they are in, and where it is going, and the recurring theme of being in a story while telling a story while living a story is one thing that makes Grossman’s work so intriguing. All the major characters here are part of this story, part of their own stories, part of lives that are imperfect and uncertain and, even when magical, filled with something less than wave-a-wand-and-solve-everything events. Almost as important in The Magician’s Land as Quentin is his onetime student Plum, whose family history ties her deeply to Fillory in ways as crucial as those that tie Quentin to it, and who is just as almost-aware in her way as Quentin is in his that they are characters in search, not of an author, but of the reason and meaning and coherence that are so rare in life and so common in books. Plum’s reading of a book-within-the-book is a central event here (almost literally, by page count, and surely deliberately so). But her reasons for reading it are as mundane – yet wonderful – as can be: “She wanted a book to do to her what books did: take away the world, slide it aside for a little bit, and let her please, please just be somewhere and somebody else.”
But what Plum discovers, what Quentin discovers, what other characters discover as well, is that you can only be who you are, only grow in your own way within your own world or worlds, whether or not it or they are made of magic or merely contain it. So much of what magic there is comes from within, so much transcends boundaries and binds people and holds worlds together – and so much comes from books themselves. This is what Grossman ultimately shows in The Magician’s Land, with an effect that lasts well beyond the novel itself, well beyond the trilogy that it concludes. As Plum realizes, “That was one thing about books: once you read them they couldn’t be unread.” Just so. The Magician’s Land is scarcely perfect – in parts it is rambling, discursive, even unfocused, and it occasionally trips over itself in a spasm of self-importance – yet this is a book that readers will surely not wish to un-read.