Shirking the Genre Ghetto: On Lev Grossman’s The Magician King and the Fantastical Novel in 2012

Alexander Yates

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New York, NY: Plume Paperback, 2012. 416 pages. $16.00.
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Last fall, Lev Grossman released The Magician King, the follow-up to his 2009 bestseller, The Magicians, and the second book in a planned trilogy. Like its predecessor, which was variously called “Harry Potter for adults” and “Harry Potter with sex and drugs”, The Magician King follows Quentin Coldwater and his friends on their adventures through an imagined world called “Fillory,” as well as a magical, booze-infused underground on good old Earth. And like its predecessor, The Magician King (just out in paperback) is surprisingly, almost subversively ambitious. Grossman indulges in all the immediate pleasures of swordplay and spells, but make no mistake: he’s got something to say about the moral implications of his own fictive universe, and those like it. He both engages with and defies the genre, and in doing so kicks down the imaginary partition separating fantasy from not-fantasy (otherwise known as serious literary big-boy writing).

The Magician King represents a continuation and a deepening of the conversation about fantasy the author opened in The Magicians. The series begins with Quentin, a brilliant high school senior and lovesick sleight of hand magician on his way to attend an admissions interview for Princeton University. The interview goes poorly in that it doesn’t go at all—the interviewer turns up dead. Quentin is instead whisked away for a mysterious entrance exam at Brakebills, a secret magical college in an unfindable corner of upstate New York. Here the Harry Potter parallels begin to loom enormous, and here some serious Potter anxiety also sets in.

This is not intended as an elbow at Rowling. Indeed many of us in the MFA/academic/literary community can be far too eager to dismiss her work and the genre at large, to conflate fantasy with juvenilia. I’m certainly guilty of this—it’s my own knee-jerk biases that make me qualify Grossman’s ambition as surprising. But to dismiss J.K. Rowling is to deny the very real genius of invention and reconfiguration that she possesses. There are certainly problems with her series, among them the fact that her antagonist-who-will-not-be-named has all the moral complexity of a great white shark. But Harry Potter is far more than escapist fantasy-candy. So my anxiety was not so much that the book was drifting into shallow, unliterary waters, but rather that the parallel to Rowling’s series might be too easy; that this was just a lazily ironized version of a wildly popular franchise with little more to add than a crew of hipsters making bad choices and occasionally getting laid. After all, we’ve got our whimsically named, secret magic school with secret magic classes. We’ve got curmudgeonly magic teachers and a vaguely European headmaster. We’ve got magical peers competing for the best grades on magic tests, living in themed magic dormitories, and playing magical sports that exist exclusively in this hidden magical subculture. If all Grossman was after was a Potteresque adventure that upped the MPAA from PG-13 to R, I’d still be along for the ride.

Thankfully he’s set his sights a good deal higher than that.

Grossman’s characters are the first and most overt evidence of his ambition. He peoples both books with a cast of brilliant and broken young men and women. Quentin, our protagonist, is a “spooky smart” alpha nerd, insecure and jealous, a young man who sees his academic competition as “someone whose only purpose in life was to succeed and by doing so subtract from his happiness.” Alice, who joins Brakebills at the same time as Quentin and becomes his first real girlfriend, is unbearably shy, but nevertheless a prodigy. The two of them fall in with the “Physical kids,” a group of students who oscillate between lazy and manically productive, all a little too-cool-for-school, all wearing protective suits of irony. These aren’t just extras from hipster central casting or adult versions of Ron or Hermione. Grossman never turns a blind eye to his characters’ bad choices, but he also doesn’t render them with anything approaching contempt. They are all sincere, despite their best efforts not to be. They all want things. They all hurt.

Any remaining anxiety that there is something cheap about all of this—that it might be bald mimicry seeking to pass as allusion—gets its deathblow halfway through the first novel when our characters suddenly graduate, thereby stepping out of the frame that so neatly contains Rowling’s series. During the deeply ambiguous, rather depressing ceremony, the dean asks them to consider this: “Can a man who can cast a spell ever really grow up?” This is the first explicit volley in a running conversation that occupies both books—is fantasy, with all its attendant escapism and solipsism, good for us? Can it really fix anything? That conversation becomes all the more manifest when Quentin and his friends actually enter a fantasy novel—or rather, they enter the magical world of Fillory, which they thought existed only in fantasy novels (as Brakebills is to Hogwarts, Fillory is to Narnia). This magical world has been Quentin’s favorite reading escape since he was a kid. Getting to go makes him deliriously happy, at first.

In Fillory The Magicians comes to a brutal climax, and it’s where much of The Magician King is set. It’s also Fillory that reveals Grossman’s determination to have his magical cake and eat it, too. Fillory is a full-on commentary on Lewis’ chronicle in specific, and the fantasy narrative in general—a sort of text-place. When the young magicians get their first quest, Grossman notes that it has “a pat, theme-park quality to it, like they were on some fantasy-camp role-playing vacation.” It’s a funny, arm’s length appraisal of the very quests Quentin devoured as an adolescent, one that will eventually lead him to look inward and examine his relationship with this fantasy. But it also presents a complication: it’s not just genre-unpacking and character development that Grossman is after here—he clearly wants the quest to be exciting in its own right.

He isn’t always successful. The brief, underground adventure leading up to the climax in The Magicians is the weakest moment in the two books. Quentin and his friends are assailed by a menagerie of armed animals and other magical opponents in what reads like the literary equivalent of a dungeon-crawler video game. The stakes are unclear. Should we care about all these NPCs (non-player characters/relatively meaningless baddies and allies)? We’re never given a compelling reason to.

This is where The Magician King picks up, not only furthering the conversation about magic, but also improving upon the genre-level pleasures that readers crave from good fantasy. At the opening of this second book Quentin and three of his friends have been installed on the four thrones of castle Whitespire, where they rule Fillory benevolently. Our magical setting is still as strange and self-consciously whimsical as it was in the first book, but here it seems more place than text—Grossman has reduced the pressure on his setting to be an exemplar of the fantasy novel, allowing Fillory to exist more fully in its own right. This pays a big dividend for the quest that Quentin and his onetime love interest Julia embark upon. Their explorations of the outer limits of their kingdom, as well as their brief and unexpected return to earth, are packed with immediate pleasure. And by the time we learn that this is a quest to save Fillory, Grossman has established Fillory as a place profoundly deserving of saving.

More pleasurable than the quest narrative is Julia’s backstory, which occurs at the same time as the events already described in The Magicians and redresses what had at first looked like a serious weakness in the series. In the first book Julia was a minor character—one of Quentin’s friends who failed her interview at Brakebills and was condemned to the life of a Muggle (to use a now-ubiquitous Potterism). She appeared briefly in the middle of the book, looking like a gaunt druggie and offering unspecified sexual favors to Quentin in return for some magical tutelage. Her return at the end to fill an empty throne in Fillory read as slapdash and would have been if The Magicians were a standalone book. But Julia’s narrative thread in The Magician King represents Grossman’s finest writing—his command of free indirect discourse is electrifying in these sections, where he gives us access to Julia’s boiling anger and confusion in a way that surpasses the already strong character development that surrounds it.

Julia’s story also houses Grossman’s most elegant and nuanced criticism of the magical empowerment fantasy. She is one of the many supposedly unspecial who are necessarily left behind by such a fantasy. Her dimness makes a fortunate protagonist gleam all the more. To watch Julia rage against this appointed role is thrilling—and heartbreaking. In Quentin’s narrative Grossman asks whether magic really fixes anything. In Julia’s he goes further, asking if magic is itself corrosive, with the attendant downsides of any strong narcotic. Juilia admits as much during one of her magical relapses. “She felt like she had no choice. It was an addiction.”

Grossman is by no means the only player on this odd field. Genre-bending has become a genre in and of itself, defined as much by marketing departments anxious to identify and broaden readership for their forthcoming books as it has been by reviewers and the authors themselves. Novelists have long treated the popular mythology of bestselling fantasy as essential parts of the culture—a text upon which their texts can be built. One of the things that makes Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao so inventive is a narrative voice that can say “negro, please” after throwing out a nerd-savvy reference to the witch king of Angmar. Jonathan Lethem is so steeped in comic books that he titled one of his novels after Superman’s secret clubhouse (The Fortress of Solitude) and threw a magical ring and flight powered crime fighting into this beautiful story about race and friendship in Brooklyn. Both of these novelists use the fantastical to achieve a distinctly literary end—something that I would argue Grossman does. Still, we don’t call what they’ve written fantasy.

On the other end of the spectrum from Díaz and Lethem are fabulists like Kelly Link, Karen Russell and George Saunders—employing apprentice wizards, migratory minotaurs and Civil War era ghosts respectively. Not only do these writers rely on the fantastical without ever holding their noses, but they also seem utterly disinterested in genre commentary. When Karen Russell writes about the feral offspring of werewolves in her heartbreakingly beautiful story St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (also the title of her debut collection) it is certainly not to expand upon an existing tradition of literary werewolves. Again, none of these writers get relegated to the intellectual ghetto of the fantasy genre. We also allow magical realists to have their own discrete branding, even though Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is one of the coolest superhero stories ever put on paper.

Genre-bending is by no means a recent phenomenon; it pre-dates genre itself. Shakespeare pulled off cultural criticism, nuanced character development, and awesome magic tricks long before any of our contemporary anxiety that these things should happen only in discrete works. But given the fractured nature of the book market into ever more specialized and self-selecting groups, Grossman’s decision to play with these boundaries and inhabit his chosen literary space as both skeptic and enthusiast is risky. There is commercial danger that the books might land just outside that sweet spot in the Venn diagram, pleasing neither traditional fantasy readers nor literary readers—though sales figures have put that particular worry to bed.

It is also a move that could be easily misinterpreted—one that I misinterpreted, at first. I was speaking to a friend recently, when I was just a few pages into The Magicians, and I described it briefly—and lazily—as a literary Harry Potter. My friend said that sounded kind of shameless, and I said: “Yeah, maybe.” Having finished the first two books of this series, two things now come to mind.

1) I owe my friend a follow-up call.

2) Grossman is shameless—in a way.

He’s totally unashamed of his own sense of wonder and fun—unashamed, but not uncritical. In these books, the reader gets the sense of Grossman engaging every part of his personality. The well-read alpha nerd. The book critic intent on looking deeper, seeking out the unexamined narrative. The little kid who is straight-up delighted by a man-sized ferret carrying a sword. There is nothing wrong with being all of these at once. We should all be so shameless.

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