Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant but bored high school student who gains admission to Brakebills, a secretive college of magic. Long obsessed with a Narnia-like series of fantasy novels he read as a child, Coldwater is at first delighted to find that magic is real, but his excitement eventually wanes. It isn’t enough, and soon Coldwater is bored again. Something is missing in his life, and neither sorcery, nor sex and drugs, can take its place.
The Magicians is that rare sort of book that finds acclaim among both fantasy fans and the literary establishment, garnering rave reviews from readers and critics alike. Grossman, who in addition to writing his own novels is Time magazine’s book reviewer, recently spoke with me about The Magicians, magic, and loss.
While reading The Magicians I noticed many references to fantasy in popular culture in all of its forms, from spell names taken from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to dialogue quoted from the old coin-operated arcade game “Gauntlet,” not to mention the obvious parallels to the Harry Potter books and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. I was particularly amused to see the characters embark on a classic “dungeon crawl” once they got to Fillory, yet I couldn’t help but suspect that there was a little bit of post-modern game-playing going on during the course of the novel’s construction. Do you see your book an homage to the genre, or a sly deconstruction?
Both/and. That’s the great thing about novels, you don’t have to choose. A book can be both a fantasy novel and a deconstruction of fantasy novels, both at the same time. In fact I think most good fantasy novels are.
All that’s really going on in The Magicians is, I didn’t airbrush out the parts of reality that fantasy authors usually airbrush out. So for example, when Harry Potter arrives at Hogwarts, it all seems totally new to him. It’s like he’s never read a fantasy novel in his life. Whereas the characters in The Magicians have. They’ve even read Harry Potter. They’ve also played video games and Dungeons & Dragons. Or the nerdy ones have, anyway. They can’t help comparing what happens to them to what they’ve read. Which isn’t metafiction, it’s just what would actually happen in real life.
Speaking of fantasy tropes and popular culture, I wonder if you’d be comfortable talking about your own initiation into the genre. Were you a fantasy fan in your youth? Did these interests follow you into adulthood?
To say that I was a fantasy fan is an understatement. I read all the time. That was who I was. Lewis, Tolkien, Le Guin, Anne McAffrey, Piers Anthony, T.H. White, Fritz Lieber, Michael Moorcock … those are the writers who made me who I am. Plus, yeah, I played a lot of D&D. I was even a fan of that TV show, Wizards & Warriors. Remember that? Of course you don’t remember that, you’re probably like 25.
And yes, they followed me into adulthood. (Well, not W&W, but the others.) In a way it’s weird that it took me this long to start writing fantasy. I don’t think I was ready. It was too much of a big deal to me.
The characters’ relationships to the magical land of Fillory — and the Fillory books — are complicated. They’re idealized in my mind: a cipher for a pre-adulthood world of innocence and whimsy to which real life never seems to hold up, no matter how amazing it becomes. Only after becoming thorougly jaded, do the characters find a way to Fillory, discovering that it isn’t what it seems. Is there a message there about the dangerous nature of dreams? Can dreams and nostalgia ruin one’s present?
They did for me, for a long time. Having been raised on Narnia, it took me a long time to accept that I would never get there, even long after I understood that on a literal level it was impossible because, duh, Narnia isn’t real. And as a result I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on around me. I wasn’t very interested in this world. For me part of growing up was figuring out how to break up with Narnia. I think I did that a lot later in life than most people.
Similarly, if viewed as a deconstruction of the genre — or maybe a subtle refutation — The Magicians seems to suggest that fantasy itself pales in comparison to the “magic” of real life. Is this observation off the mark? What would you say?
Ah, see, here I disagree. I have a real problem with those novels — like the Narnia books, or The Wizard of Oz, or The Phantom Tollbooth — where at the end the kids have to go back to real life, and we’re supposed to believe they’re all thrilled and happy about it. No place like home, etc. Who’s going to buy that? Who wants dustbowl Kansas when you can have OZ? I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that The Magicians — the way I read it, at least — weighs in on the other side of that issue.
What drove you to tell this sort of story as a fantasy, rather than as a conventional novel? It seems that some critics won’t touch a book with imaginative or fantastic elements. Would drove you to take the risk? Also, do you feel like critics are growing warmer to fantastic fiction? If so, then why?
I spent a long time living with one foot in the world of conventional novels, as a graduate student in literature and then later as a professional book reviewer. When you sit down to write a novel about people who cast spells for a living, you say goodbye to that world. Not that I was going to win a National Book Award anyway, but when you do that you can’t even PRETEND that you’re going to win a National Book Award. You just give all that up. I’ve made my peace with that. There wasn’t even really a choice. Fantasy was what I wanted.
Though I do think the climate has changed for fantastic fiction. Harry Potter helped change it, just in terms of expanding mainstream awareness of the genre. The real turning of the tide, at least for me personally, was Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a book so fantastical and so beautiful that critics on all sides were forced to bow down before it.
What’s next for you?
A sequel. There’s a lot of Fillory that Quentin hasn’t seen yet. Not even the Chatwins got to see it. Hell, I haven’t seen it. And I’m curious.