Nick's Reviews > The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
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Jul 21, 11

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Read from July 17 to 21, 2011

I'll start off with what I think about The Magicians as a book and finish with what I think of it as an allegory. If you haven't read the book and don't like spoilers, bow out when I start talking about the allegory. I'll give you a warning at that part.

I've heard this is "Harry Potter" for adults but I think it's really just "Harry Potter" for cynics. The cynical undertone, along with well developed characters and incredible prose make this book the winner that it is. Lev Grossman writes cynicism and disillusionment like an absolute champ, either because he's a really good writer, a total cynical bastard, or perhaps both.

I've seen a lot of different reactions to this book on Goodreads, and and a great deal of them seem to be divided into two sets of people: Cynical bastards like me who love it and people who are upset at The Magicians' not so subtle subversion of C.S. Lewis and Harry Potter and the fact that Quentin is sort of a bastard. Included in the latter are probably some people who don't get along well with unlikable main characters, which The Magicians has in spades. Honestly, the book is so well done that even if I had a problem with all of the above, I'd still probably be forced to give it a 2 or a 3 just because I appreciate what a good job Grossman did with what he was aiming for. That's how I feel about books though, I have to appreciate them a little in spite of what I don't like about them. For instance, if a Nazi Me-262 was raking the bomber I was flying over Germany with cannon fire, as I burst into flames, I'd have to admire the ingenuity of those goons. "Good job, chaps!" I'd say, "Very fast plane!" as I hopefully escaped the burning wreckage of my aircraft and deployed my parachute.

It seems that this book is an allegory for graduate school, at least for some subjects that are studied at a graduate level. Lev Grossman obviously attended a graduate program (3 years in a Ph.D program in Comparative Lit, leaving the program before he finished his dissertation, if I correctly remember what I read.)

Now, let us examine the case for allegory! Super-smart kids test to get into super special institution. Most of them don't make it. One of the ones that doesn't make it is devastated that she couldn't hack it and it consumes her life. The few who make it are suddenly thrown into a group that is just as talented and just as competitive as they are. They become separated from the world of "normalcy" and firmly ensconced in the world of magic (read: academia) at their university, now with little in common with their families and other "normal" acquaintances, who can no longer see the world in the same way as the do. They are tested, and occasionally tested in ways that border on torture by mean foreign men who are far better at what they do than the students are. They find their particular pet topics, although they are determined by the faculty instead of chosen by the student. Maybe you chose to study Feudal Japanese Death Poems, but at student at Brakebills was assigned to study Nature Magic, with a concentration in Petunia Manipulation.

Perhaps it is a commentary on the academics that get their Ph.D's when Mayakorvsky has a conversation that notes a lot of them will graduate and think they are Magicians but they really are not. Only some of them will really use and understand magic. I would assume these are the academics that really do good, original work in their fields and don't dwell on useless minutia and debate.

After graduation, the students mill about aimlessly, with skills that have no practical application in the "real world" they are suddenly thrown back into. Life is empty, and full of drinking, drugs, sex and general nihilism. It was at this point that I would have decided, if I hadn't read it earlier, than Grossman studied something classified under "The Humanities." Oh, the humanity! The only difference is that since they are Magicians they aren't dirt poor and crushed under education-incurred debt. They search for some grand application for their skills, to fill the empty holes in their lives. Perhaps it's the search for the magical equivalent of the tenure track position? I don't feel as confident about this part of my allegory story, so I may be wrong. (Please comment if you have an improvement!) Then, when they finally get their "tenure track position" with a chance to do "real work", Fillory, turns out to be a big crock of Ram-God dung. Everyone ends up damaged by their magical life choices and even more upset than they were before they got their "real work."

Quentin reacts by giving up magic and returning to the real world he previously disdained and tried to escape. He decides that the mundane, boring safety of being a normal person is his ticket out of guilt, disappointment and emptiness. Then, his friends show up again, smash the window of his comfortable office (life) and remind him that you can try to get out, but once you're in, they'll pull you back in. Just like the mafia. Except with a lot more book knowledge... AND THE POWERS OF FLIGHT. Cazzata, Quentin!
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Reading Progress

07/18/2011 page 79
20.0% "Call me old-fashioned, but I think fire is magic... and it scares me a lot."
07/18/2011 page 196
49.0% "There should be a joke that's like "The Aristocrats" except it ends in "I call it: 'The Magicians'!" Maybe one can outline the plot of a prospective YA novel full of both the scatalogical and the pornographic?"
07/19/2011 page 226
56.0% "How long did it take you to deduce that Lev Grossman had spent significant time in a graduate program and it significantly informed his characters and cliques in The Magicians?" 2 comments

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Phoebe (new)


message 2: by Phoebe (new)

Phoebe There is a line in the first chapter of the sequel about how the hedge witch is so much more serious about magic--they've all become so lighthearted about it, sarcastic. But she thinks it's SERIOUS BIZNIZ. Sounds like grad school poets vs. people who just love poetry, to me.

Nick The person who doesn't have it given to them values it all the more, in the case of Julia.

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