Lev Grossman’s The Magicians has been billed as “Harry Potter for grown-ups.” However, this is not “Harry Potter and the All-Weekend Kegger Where Things Got a Little Weird.” No. The Magicians provides serious social commentary. It is capital “L” Literature. It just happens to involve a school where young adults learn magic and a mysterious Narnia-like parallel world full of wonder and intrigue. If those ideas seem mutually exclusive to you, this is not the book for you.
Quentin Coldwater is a high-school senior. He’s not a loser per se, after all he’s academically among the elites in New York City:
The school systems in Brooklyn sorted out the gifted ones and shoved them together, then separated the ridiculously brilliant ones from the merely gifted ones and shoved them together, and as a result they’d been bumping into each other in the same speaking contests and regional Latin exams and tiny, specially convened ultra-advanced math classes since elementary school. The nerdiest of the nerds.
Where do kids like that end up? One place that they could end up is at an Ivy League university. Quentin is, in fact, leaving an interview with a Princeton alum (that goes awry) when he stumbles through a Brooklyn alley and onto the campus of the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. It turns out to be harder to get into than even Princeton.
Magic college sounds infinitely more interesting than the other, more uncertain, future that lay before Quentin, so he decides to stay. Although more difficult than he would have imagined, college agrees with Quentin. He begins to find himself, becomes more self-confident, and maybe even finds where he belongs:
After his little curved tower-top room, how could he go back to his dingy bedroom in Brooklyn with its crumbly white paint and its iron bars on the window and its view of a tiny walled-in dirt patch…He had nothing to say to his well-meaning, politely curious parents…His world had become complicated and interesting and magical.
If you didn’t know this book was about a school of magic, Quentin’s first visit home from college would sound like that of almost any other college kid. What’s wonderful and subversive about this novel is that Grossman could be talking about time spent in any well-respected college. If you went away for college (from home and your best friends), then a lot of this novel will ring absolutely true. And you probably didn’t go to a school of magical pedagogy.
I don’t want it so seem like the novel is a pedantic grind, because it’s not. The novel totally works on the kid-goes-to-magic-school-and-has-adventures level. Beneath that though, The Magicians explores the transition from adolescence through college and into the job market, especially among “elite” students. (Quentin’s time in the working world is an especially savage commentary.)
The themes that emerge throughout the book are subtle and raise questions that are worth considering: Is it really healthy to isolate “gifted” kids throughout their educations? Is college where childhood dreams go to die? Does privilege and power necessarily lead to evil? What’s the deal with that guy in the corner office who doesn’t seem to do anything all day long?
Clearly, I thought The Magicians was brilliant. If any of the above sounds interesting to you (Hey! I hardly even mentioned the magic school/Narnia world plot!), be sure to check it out.
Lev Grossman had the audacity to write a piece for the Wall Street Journal recently titled “Good Novels Don’t Have to Be Hard.” Naturally he was burned at the proverbial stake in various quarters for various sins, heresies, and heterodoxies against Literature. I don’t think the essay says that “hard” novels aren’t good, just that novels don’t have to be difficult in order to be Literary. Check out the article. I think it explains what he was trying to do here, and I’m on board.