A point of history that is easy to overlook is that Hemingway was writing at the same time as Tolkien. Joyce and Wolfe were contemporaries of Lewis. Imagine taking the complicated characters of Wolfe, Hemingway, and Joyce—with their wonderfully rich inner lives—and transplanting them into the immense external landscapes of Middle Earth or Narnia. What happens next? This October at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Lev Grossman asked that question of his audience; it was, he said, the question that drove him ten years ago to start The Magicians trilogy. Now, with The Magician's Land, we've come to the end of that project. How successful was it?
To understand why, there are two other comments from Grossman's Nashville reading that are illustrative. First, the author claimed the books are "much less about using magic to defeat the forces of evil, and much more about using it to discover what magic is for." To verb the noun, one may describe the series as the metaphysical and moral question, Why magic? Grossman's other relevant comment came after describing his self-doubt following mixed reviews of his second novel, this arriving on top of complications in his personal life; feeling utterly lost, he said "I wanted my magician to feel lost in the same way."
I've heard this trilogy called "Harry Potter for grown-ups, but with less Voldemort and more drugs and sex." Titillating, perhaps, but it doesn't quite capture the disillusionment of the main character, or the importance of the larger exploration of what magic is for. Lately I've come to think of the series in terms of another hard-to-describe book centered around the yearnings and wanderings of an aimless, angry, disaffected protagonist. Quentin Coldwater—a privileged white male who never seems to know what he wants, but knows he is dissatisfied with life; who faces trauma beyond his control, and as a result becomes distant and cynical—is very Holden Caulfield-esque. Imagine Holden ten years older, having discovered something that finally gives his life meaning, and then having it taken away from him: all of his suspicions about the universe confirmed, the hopes he finally allowed to surface dashed, and everyone he loves gone or unreachably distant. This is essentially Quentin at the beginning of The Magician's Land.
The book doesn't focus solely on Quentin, however; the Physicals Kids have been divided between two realms. While Quentin returns to Brakebills as a professor, obsessed with wresting Alice back from the magic that has claimed her, Eliot and the other king and queens of Fillory receive word that their world is dying. The magic of Fillory is winding down, and as it does the relative peace of the magical kingdom thins and thins until it shatters in memorably epic fashion. Meanwhile, back on earth we're introduced to Plum, great-niece of the Chatwins, who happens to get Quentin fired and herself expelled from Brakebills. But they're reacquainted by a magical bird with an irresistible offer: a million dollars each if they can help him break an unbreakable bond. Quentin jumps at the challenge—and the independence the money will afford him so he can continue his niffin obsession.
Plum also accepts, partly out of curiosity, partly out of wanting to prove herself, and partly from the allure of fear itself. She's self-destructive in a way many readers will recognize: "always at the back of her mind was the thought that she might go too far, dig too deep, and dig up something that she would wish had stayed buried. She especially thought about that when those depressive, anhedonic chemicals were singing in her bloodstream, because then she kind of wanted to dig it up. She wanted to look it in the face" (p. 87). Plum is arguably the most interesting character in the novel; perhaps because she offers new blood—everything you loved and hated about Quentin, Janet, and Eliot you will still love or hate—but also because she offers a fresh perspective. She feels the heartbeat of something monstrous and ancestral pulling her to Fillory, yet at the same time she's young and vital in ways that weary Quentin no longer can be.
Part of Quentin's weariness comes from a lack of guidance: he, like the other characters, has to charge through everything headfirst praying it works out. Doing so, you tend to hit a lot of doors. This is no accident: while commenting on wanting his magician to feel as lost as himself, Grossman noted that he deliberately removed the traditional adviser figure (Gandalf, Dumbledore, etc.). Or as Quentin tells Plum, "In our world no one ever knows what to do, and everyone's just as clueless and full of crap as everyone else, and you have to figure it all out by yourself" (p. 252). And yet, despite the absent adviser figure the symbolic power of the father is very real, particularly in this third book. We discover relatively early that Quentin's father has died, and this death affects Quentin profoundly—not emotionally, but metaphysically:
There was no question: his magic was different. The light that played around his hands as he worked was more intense than it had been a week ago. In the darkness the colors were shifted a bit toward the violent violet end of the spectrum. The power came more easily, and it buzzed harder and louder in his fingers. He studied his hands. Something had broken loose in him. (p. 35)
Intertextuality aside (the "violent violet" is reminiscent of Discworld's octarine, an allusion that is made more apparent by several cosmological revelations about Fillory later in the book), the death of the father figure equals both symbolic and real power for Quentin. And when he needs greater power still—power beyond his ability to master—he has to return to Brakebills South to request it from his surrogate magical father, Mayakovsky. During a drunken magical duel, Quentin is faltering until Mayakovsky makes an off-hand comment about the younger man's father. "My dad's dead," Quentin replies, and suddenly finds his resolve (p. 128). Doing so, he's able to face down the genius tyrant of the Antarctic and is granted the power he seeks.
This question of fathers and surrogates plays out in other ways, too. The Chatwins' father was away at war, and we learn that his stand-in, Christopher Plover, perverted and abused his position. Martin tried to escape Plover through seeking Fillory more and more, but was granted access less and less. As Rupert Chatwin writes in a diary discovered by Plum and Quentin:
[Martin] went there to escape from our saintly benefactor Christopher Plover, and to find better, wiser, or at least safer mentors . . . I cannot help but wonder too if, in a terrible irony, that was precisely why the rams stopped bringing Martin to Fillory. Martin was fleeing from Plover, but Fillory didn't want him anymore. Because Plover had sullied him. (p. 222-3)
Martin's rejection by the "better, wiser, or at least safer" mentor Ember leads to a devil's decision: to stay in Fillory, forever, he has to trade the one thing he has that Fillorians don't—his humanity. This he sells to Umber, Ember's mirror self. But in symbolic logic, this is the wrong way of things: it is the father who should die, literally and not metaphorically, so that the son may gain power. Martin's metaphoric death at the hands of his substitute father is a perversion of order, and the power that he gains as a result is magnified, but twisted. He becomes the Beast that in book one causes Alice to be transmuted into a niffin (costing her humanity, too). To restore balance, and save a dying Fillory even in its last throes, Quentin has to revert the natural order by killing both Ember and Umber. The narrative explains this mythologically: "Fillory didn't have to die, it could be renewed and live again, but there was a price, and the price was holy blood. It was the same in all mythologies: for a dying land to be reborn, its god must die" (p. 377). This has all the weight of a powerful truth; but no less necessary is for the same act to fulfill the overarching story logic of inheritance. The same event pays out on many levels. It is layers such as these that overturn the old dismissal that genre fiction is mere escapism.
The third book in a trilogy is meant to wrap up loose threads and conclude everything satisfactorily. With The Magician's Land, Grossman displays an admirably Dickensian mastery of plot threads. To paraphrase a literary contemporary of Grossman, everything is illuminated: Reynard the Fox is dealt with; the mysterious page from the Neitherlands is explained; the question of niffins is resolved; the cowardice and duplicity of Ember and Umber are clarified; the reason for Fillory's existence, and why some people can cross over, becomes understood. But this isn't to say there aren't mysteries. The worlds are bigger and more inscrutable than the story itself. Repeatedly throughout the book we are given glimpses of tantalizing possibilities or greater realities beyond the scope of the story. For example, as Quentin and Plum swim as whales south to Antarctica, we see in passing "something else—something down there in the black abyssal trenches of the ocean. Something that wanted to rise. The whales were keeping it down. What was it? . . . Quentin never found out. He hoped he never would" (p. 115).
Despite a looser, more picaresque plot structure, this may be the best book of the trilogy. I found myself wanting to reread the first two books to rediscover all the clues picked up in this volume. It's a funny book, too, in a darkly ironic fashion. When Janet tells the tale of her annexation of the Wandering Desert, she decides to conquer the land single-handedly on a whim; through the process, the cold and distant Janet comes to identify deeply with the people and yearns for their acceptance and approval; ultimately, she is tricked and humiliated in vindictive fashion. There is a bleak ontology to the series that's not so much hiding in the wings as groaning under the weight of the characters' dreams (much like the Atlas figure that comprises Fillory's portal in the Neitherlands). As Rupert Chatwin puts it, with the deliberate play on the word fair, "Fillory was cruel, as cruel in its way as the real world was. There was no difference, though we all pretended there was. There was nothing fair about Fillory" (p. 235).
While Grossman cites modernists as his literary influences, in the end there's a pervading sense of the postmodern in his narrative voice, hinted at in the excerpt from Rupert's diary. The narrator, and the characters, are almost clinically self-reflexive. Overstatement is avoided, and anytime we get too close to the heart of an emotion or too lyrical in description there's that reflexive drawback. Thus the play on Fillory's fairness, or the lyricism of the following description immediately undercut by the reactive summation: the magician Lionel is introduced as having "broad shoulders and that aura of slow inexorability that naturally enormous men have . . . He looked like a gourd" (p. 3). The one exception to this trend is in the chapters from Eliot's perspective; here, the voice is more reminiscent of Oscar Wilde: "there was nothing more tedious than virtue," Eliot muses after having to put forth the kingly effort to rebuff an invading army (p. 48). It's the same millennial detachment as the other perspectives, only more decadent and languorous, and Eliot's fin de siècle sensibility is all too appropriate considering Fillory's approaching fin du globe.
In the end, that starting question—Why magic?—is answered somewhere in the gray space between rebelliousness and ironic detachment with, Why not? Magic's difficult, and dangerous, and tends to bite the hand that feeds; "there were lots of things magic couldn't do. It couldn't raise the dead. It couldn't make you happy. It couldn't make you good-looking. And even with the things it could do, it didn't always do them right. And it always, always cost something" (p. 260, emphasis added). Sometimes (albeit rarely) the cost is worth the reward, but even when it isn't the knowledge changes you (for a memorably horrific example, see Julia and Reynard from book two). Beyond the wonder mediated by realism and the sense of the sublime tempered by pain, the real success of this trilogy is that in the all too unmagical inner conflicts the characters face we recognize ourselves—conflicts which the element of magic allows Grossman to set at just enough of a distance for us to feel their truth without suffering their memory. Even when magic goes horribly awry, you are left both lesser and greater than you were before. Replace the word "magic" in that sentence with the noun of your choice, and doesn't that sound like growing up?