I can imagine the agent’s pitch for Lev Grossman’s The Magicians: this kid is feeling bored with the mundane world, neglected by his parents, then he is whisked away to an academy of magic steeped in the culture of English public schools and nestled in a rural setting, where he participates in a special magical team sport and has adventures that are at once magical and typical of the growing-up process.
This précis may have given some publishers that not-so-fresh feeling, but, oddly, neither The Magicians nor its sequel, The Magician King, reads like a ripoff of Harry Potter. The students at Brakebills College are older and, more importantly, snider than those at Hogwarts (our hero, Quentin, looks in the mirror and wonders what sort of loser goes around at age 20 in a school uniform). Q and friends cock an eyebrow at their school’s upper-class Anglophilia (all the more absurd because it’s in America); they too have read Harry Potter, I suspect, that they too have wondered why anyone would give a flying broom whether Snippydoo House or Grumblebum House ends the year with more points. OTOH, nobody quits Brakebills or really tries to change any of its stupid customs.
This same double perspective, embracing the romance even while mocking it, applies when we pass through a portal to Fillory, the magical world of Quentin’s favorite childhood stories. In the Fillory books, a family of apple-cheeked English kids met fabulous but not-too-scary beasts and had rather tame adventures; in other words, Fillory is to Narnia what Brakebills is to Hogwarts. For example, instead of a lion, Fillory has twin rams, Ember and Umber, who turn up at the end of each novel, make tedious speeches, and send the kids back to Earth. If this all seems pretty cheesy, it could be worse. Q’s friend Josh goes through many portals in search of Middle Earth, but comes no closer than the land of the Teletubbies.
Quentin jumps at the chance to escape from a life that to him is dull and mediocre but would strike some of us as full of privilege and possibility: living in New York City, hanging out with super-smart nerdy friends, getting ready to go to Princeton. He is like one of the accidiosi that Dante meets in one of the shadier nooks of Hell, who tell him “tristi fummo nel aer dolce che del sol s’allegra” (we were sad in the sweet air that rejoices in the sun). And like them, he carries his emptiness with him from world to world, trying with limited success to stuff magic and adventure where his soul should be. And by limited success I mean tragic failure, at least in The Magicians.
We are relieved to find, in The Magician King, that Q has toned down the exasperating assholery a bit, and even more relieved that we get to spend much of our time with the equally self-destructive but more human Julia. Julia takes the underground, non-academic route to magical lore; she and her circle end up in Provence, exploring the roots of magic in legend and folk religion. Having met online, they know each other by their avatar names, such as PouncySilverKitten, who turns out to be a pinstriped ex-hedge fund manager. Anyway, he’s unhappy with the local mythic fauna and yearns for something more classical:
“How is this getting us anywhere? If I have to hear one more word about that Golden fucking Goat, I’m going to go mental, absolutely mental. The goat knows nothing. This whole region is just chickenshit! I would kill for something Greek—anything, god, demigod, spirit, monster….I don’t even care what. A cyclops. […]
Asmodius stared at him balefully across a table strewn with baguette crusts and smears of local jam. […]
“No cyclops,” she said. “Sirens. I could get you a siren. “
“Sirens?” Pouncy brightened up. He banged the table with the flat of his hand. “Why didn’t you say so? That’s great!”
“They’re not Greek sirens, though; they’re French. They’re half-snake, from the waist down.
Pouncy frowned. “so, like a gorgon.”
“No, gorgons have snakes for hair. Except anyway I don’t think gorgons are real.”
“A half-snake woman,” Julia said, “would be a lamia.”
“She would be,” Asmodius snapped, “if she were in Greece. But we’re in France, so she’s a siren.”
“Alright, but maybe she knows a lamia,” Pouncy said. “Maybe they’re related, like cousins. You gotta think all the snake-bodied women have a network.”
“She doesn’t know a lamia!” Asmodius put her head down on the table. “God, you have no idea what you’re asking.”
In the end, they get a hell of a lot more than they realized they were asking for.
This exchange should give you an idea of the punchy, geeky style with which Grossman keeps us entertained. Allusions to both pop and old-timey culture are mixed in with references to Klein bottles and cellular automata (they’re math things) in a way that can be quite amusing…except for one strange problem.
The problem is that these characters are supposed to be growing up in the 2000s, born in 1988 or so, but they feel like transplants from the ‘80s. Julia likes hanging out with people who get her Goedel, Escher, Bach references—I remember enjoying that book tremendously….30 years ago. We get allusions to Watership Down, Monty Python, the original Star Trek, even the weeping Native American from the ‘70s TV commercial. Julia not only reads GEB, she occasionally visits the Big Blue Room, a joking programmerish term for the outdoors that was current in 1990.
Sometimes the musty aura is more subtle. Julia laments that men are so hard to understand and, so buggy and unoptimized. Buggy I get, but unoptimized? There was a time when programmers were obsessed with optimization, because they operated with such limited memory space and processing power; I can remember reading old books with discussions of problems like how to sort a list without using more than 2K of memory. But optimizing means taking shortcuts, so it makes programs harder to understand and harder to debug (contrary to what Julia seems to think). By the time I became a programmer in the mid-‘90s, hardware had become so cheap, and programs so big and complex, that optimization was almost a dirty word, or at best something to do if you finished a project early and didn’t have anyone to play Doom with.
Come to think of it, the young Brakebillians, apolitical and self-absorbed, unable to think of a better use for their powers than stealing money, have a certain Brat Pack/Brett Easton Ellis vibe that is more reminiscent of Reagan’s America than of the young people I know now. Admittedly these last are not magicians or even math geeks, but they also, I hope, don’t set themselves up as food experts and then put wine and cream in their amatriciana sauce like Q’s friends. Surely we have made some progress.