Grossman’s Magicians

I have binged a bit on Lev Grossman. He writes a kind of anti-Narnia that is a lot more clever than Philip Pullman’s. The kids end up at Brakebills, which is a kind of Hogwarts without so much magic and little of the wonder–not greatly elaborated on at least. They even have an unexciting sort of Quiddich which is more like chess. There they are worked nearly to death, drink a lot, fornicate but for some reason do not do drugs. Once they get out they get apartments in Manhattan and do drugs. And that is part of the point.

Being a magician contains no wonder: what it does is give them opportunities to get into greater danger. The magic helps them deal with the danger–barely–and leaves them still mostly bored afterward. There is something there about the wasteland of modern life and feeling, and the powers technology confers.

Curious how he weaves in the vernacular, and really that’s part of his theme. And he does it well and thoroughly. Also, playing through the whole book is the mention of a series of five books where some English kids go to a magical land called Fillory; everybody studying magic at Brakebills has read the books and secretly longs to go to Fillory. What Grossman does is subtly to poke fun at the Aglophilia that is involved, to whet the appetite for all who want to go to such places by hinting and hinting, and then to take his crew there for the great let down.

The bathrooms are still smelly in Fillory, the bar tenders are keen on partaking, the bears oddly up-to-date dumb, and the centaurs keep herds of horses to have casual sex with. All this is actually slowly and carefully revealed in a rather devastating way. I may have made it sound cheaper than it is, because the truth is Grossman does make you think.

Not, mind you, that I agree; it is kind of like Neverwhere in that they get in, don’t want to be there, deal with it barely, escape, never want to go back, and then decide to go back. Same plot as Neverwhere, just longer on the preliminaries because of what the even is going to reveal.

Part of the charm–or the anti-charm–of Grossman is that the whole thing is written (and felt) in the vernacular. Have you ever tried to write something meaningful in the contemporary vernacular? He can still make the vernacular do an awful lot of things. And Lewis did his in the vernacular and made the vernacular do and the reader feel an awful lot of things. Emphasis on ‘lot’ with Lewis, emphasis on ‘awful lot’ with Grossman. Growing up, the book indicates, is about getting over Narnia, even if you can go there; and man that kind of thing is NOT up my alley, but the point was so interestingly made that I don’t resent being put through the book. One feels a response is in order, but that would take the cleverness and talent of a Grossman which I am not sure I have.

There is also a lesson for those of us writing stories and anybody interested in the possibilities of the contemporary use of our idiom for purposes of the imagination–my eyes were opened because I struggle with that aspect of expression a lot. Urban fantasy, I gather, is about fantasy without any of the illusions. And I understand part of that, but it seems rather a doomed effort. I do believe it is an interesting thing to deal with and I kept thinking of Till We Have Faces as the point of the book dawned on me–as a contrast.

Grossman’s book is not a book calculated to stimulate or aid the moral imagination.


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