Aug 19, 10
Read in April, 2010
People love describing one thing as the adult version of another thing. For example, Foucault's Pendulum is like The Da Vinci Code for adults. The allure of this kind of comparison is at least threefold: 1) it offers a simple way to draw people in, by playing on their affection for another work; 2) it leverages against the desire to take in a more mature version of something they already like; and 3) it derides the value of the other, presumably-enjoyed work.
People love to dismiss especially popular works as being childish or inane. (One would think we would overcome that need in junior high, but generally speaking, we do not.)
In any case, I like many others am tempted to describe Lev Grossman's The Magicians as Harry Potter for adults. Yet do so without the condescension. In many ways the comparison really is apt. For one, there's plenty of magic and plenty of gratuitous nudity. There's a school for witchcraft and wizardry, but its a college. The students lounge around in their free time doing off-handed magics and getting colossally drunk. So, Harry Potter but for adults?
Sort of, I guess. But Grossman's novel is really quite a bit more.
Through a thoroughly secular treatment of the Narnian-style of fantasy worlds, Grossman unveils a story that's less about fantasy and wonder and exploring the hidden worlds that hide beneath our noses and more about the growth of human character and the obstacles that threaten to halt that growth entirely. The Magicians is, essentially, an amusingly framed bildungsroman, exploring the life and maturation of Quentin Coldwater, a young man who has just discovered that magic is as real as DNA and has been enrolled in a private college devoted to its study.
For Quentin, this is an especially notable discovery, as he had always suspected magic was indeed real. As a child, he had read and absorbed the Fillory novels, Grossman's fictional answer to Lewis' Narnia. In The Magicians, the Fillory novels were a series of five books written in the twenties that charted the exploratory paths of the Chatwin children, as they flit between our world and Fillory in similar fashion to how Lewis has the Pevensies occasionally visit Narnia. Yet for Quentin, they set a seed in his mind and even at age seventeen and considering which Ivy League school to attend, he's still checking the backs of cabinets for passages into lands beyond reason.
As one may presume when confronted by a character who desperately seeks a world of fantasy, Quentin is thoroughly unhappy. Though set with a future that by all conventional wisdom should be regarded as stellar, Quentin is discouraged by how desaturated the world is to his eyes. There is no joy in his accomplishments, in his talents, or in his future at Yale or Harvard or whichever school of excellence he's destined to attend. There are only two things he wants: a romance with his friend Julie and Fillory. Both are fantasies (Julie is currently with his best friend James and Fillory is the invention of a children's adventure novel) and so we get a taste immediately for Quentin's brand of dissatisfaction.
At heart, The Magicians is a reflection on how we deal with depression. And the way we, as a culture (an American culture at any rate), deal with depression is to indulge in the fantasy that depression is not the correct way to understand the world. Grossman grants this and embraces it by having Quentin give up depression for Fantasy (for so long as it holds). The book struggles admirably with the reasonableness of being bored or disgusted by the world.
In that sense, yes, The Magicians really is kind of like Harry Potter for adults—if only because children rarely have the context by which to understand Quentin's struggles.