Sunday, June 28, 2009

Magicians by Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman's Magicians (published by Viking in August) is a truly inspired book. The author of Codex has constructed a highly believable alternative world of magic and sorcery. We see it through the eyes of Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant, though a bit neurotic, high achieving, nerd from Brooklyn. He finds himself in a familiar situation, competing for an opening in a highly selective institution of higher learning, except he's never heard of it before, doesn't know how he got there, and people disappear from the crowded exam room. Quentin, a sensitive bookish young man, is miserable enough in his personal life and sufficiently intrigued to accept his admission way off the Ivy League track. And the work is challenging, tedious and fascinating, as he learns to transform into animals and travel between dimensions of time. Just as difficult are his peers, the incredibly talented and personally reticent Alice, Penny, aggressive with his mohawk and street creed, and the enigmatic and debauched Eliot.

They and other students are the core of this college student's "coming of age." As Quentin struggles to develop his magical abilities to deal with his workload, he also discovers what it's like, as a loner, to be accepted by a group of gifted equals. Together they experiment with sex, booze and magical excess. But he also experiences the disillusionment of learning that sorcery and magic can't rescue you, that it doesn't change your world. Love and work prove as complicated and muddled, and as emotionally painful, as they can be in ordinary reality. After graduation and an aimless dissipated period in New York City, the friends hit on an essential discovery. They can go to Filory, a place in treasured fantasy novels that turns out to be real. Yet the Filory they visit is not the benign destination of children. It's an adult world of irrational cruelty and the misuse of extraordinary power. They must deal with their own darkness, betrayal of love and themselves, in the adventure of their lifetimes.

This is a very adult book that teens may also like because the characters are insecure yet have sparks of genius. It's a smart. knowing look at adolescents--self-conscious, ironically recognizing their shortcomings, yet admirable in their desire to become their best. And in the process, as Quentin navigates the tricky passage to adulthood, he questions the relevance of his ambitions. In the end, an older Quenton suffers disillusionment with himself, the chagrin of his own idiocy, and goes beyond that to accept his own eccentric place in the world.

Magicians is not Harry Potter or Fowles' Magus though it's akin to both with some "animal house" tossed in. It's also a distant American relation to CS Lewis or EB White. But ultimately this is an outrageously original book, a page turner that's thoughtful, very funny, and emotionally satisfying. I hope Tim Burton directs the movie. Recommended--Magicians is an amazing read.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Like a Jane Austen novel you really want to read, says the flap copy quote for this NY Times bestseller by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame Smith. That would be a fine anti-intellectual sentiment but for those of us who, pardon me, actually liked dipping into a long-vanished world of manners and nuances, precious in the good sense of the word as rare and valuable. The zombies are a cheap distraction and a trivializing of Jane Austen's world. Except there is, I think, something more clever going on here besides a clever take-off precious in the pejorative sense. You get the idea that the zombies somehow represent the dark repressed underside of British culture--the savage cannibalisitc force of empire underneath this formal society.

It's a strange virus. One bite turns a living person dead and then they develop a lust for munching brains but can be fooled into attacking a cauliflower. Very funny also to see an Elizabeth and Darcy who are trained martial arts warriors--Elizabeth vowed to defend the crown until death or her wedding. But it's going a bit far, at least for this fan of the unadulterated P&P to have her eat the beating heart of a vanquished ninja foe, kind of pushes the barbaric British aristocracy thing. But then that is the point of this sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle often clever parody or homage--who knows?

I like that even Jane, the most saint-like Bennett sister, could be a victim of the zombi flu and that Liz's best friend Charlotte does succumb. Seems the enemy is ultimately them in this alternative classic. The dawning awareness is when Lizzie and Jane are dispatching zombies and see a sight they had never seen, a zombie infant and mother. Since they weren't being attacked they show mercy to the gruesome pair. Though later Darcy and Liz can't resist dispatching a group who haven't done anything to them, but that's the joy of new love, fighting together.

And that is essentially the heart of Jane's book, still intact, the comedy of manners leading to love's declaration and Liz awakening from antipathy to cherishing Darcy. The difference, grafted on, is the zombie flu hanging over England. Even the powerful martial arts skills of Lady Catherine and serum that slows down the flu's transformation, can't really save England. When Liz bests her in a fab duel, she doesn't spare her life from mercy--her nature is to savage--but a calculation to retain Darcy's love. What could be more Jane Austen? Caution on this recommendation.