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Books
by Elizabeth Hand

Cheek by Jowl: Essays, by Ursula K. Le Guin, Aqueduct Press, 2009, $16.

The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia, by Laura Miller, Little, Brown & Company, 2008, $25.99.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, Viking, 2009, $25.95.

THE USES OF
DISENCHANTMENT

I SIT AT MY desk, struggling to write in the endless shadow cast by Hope Mirrlees, J. R. R. Tolkien, T. H. White, C. S. Lewis, Jack Vance, M. John Harrison, Angela Carter, John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, George R.R. Martin, J. K. Rowling [gentle readers, insert your favorite authors here], serenaded by the fitful vespertine squeaks of Stephenie Meyer and her umbrous ilk. Maybe it's the lack of light; maybe global warming has finally starved my brain of oxygen.

But it seems to me an undeniable fact that we live in a post-fantasy world. Can there possibly be a single barren atoll left unpopulated by psammeads or simurghs, a rural corner of Dorimare undevastated by the world-building boom that brought us Gil'ead, Westland, Andor, Tarbean, and the Final Empire? Can there possibly be another golden city, far beyond the dim endragoned dreaming sea? Sisters and brothers, do you really need to read another freaking elf (dragon/wizard/daemon/shape–shifter/djinn/witch etc.) book?

Yeah, well, okay. Me too. As Ursula K. Le Guin notes in Cheek by Jowl, a brief, thoughtful assemblage of essays and addresses she's delivered over the last few years, "The only kind of fiction that is read with equal {if differing} pleasure at eight and at sixteen and sixty-eight seems to be fantasy and its close relation, the animal story." Le Guin is preaching to the choir in several of these pieces—booksellers and editors and writers at Book Expo America; members of the American Library Association—and there's a certain amount of familiar, if gentle, necessary, knuckle-rapping in the form of reminders that great or even good fantasy literature is not cliché-bound, i.e., it doesn't have to be that "(1) the characters are white; (2) they live sort of in the middle ages; and (3) they're fighting in a battle between good and evil." [Readers: remember this! There will be a test!]

The centerpiece of Cheek by Jowl is the long, marvelous title essay on animals in children's literature, which pays homage to the well-known (The Sword in the Stone, Dr. Dolittle, White Fang, The Wind in the Willows) in addition to the still well-known but now sadly less-read (Bambi, Black Beauty, The Incredible Journey), as well as the unjustly forgotten (the many works of Ernest Thompson Seton). My sole plaint is one that every reader will voice: the essay should be longer. Where is Beautiful Joe? and the Miss Bianca books? and The Wolf King? Rabbit Hill and "The Dark Gentleman" and the 101 Dalmatians and Knee-Deep in Thunder? and.…

I had forgotten how many animal books I read and loved as a kid, until "Cheek by Jowl" reminded me. I'd also forgotten how many animal stories end in heartbreak—Ol' Yeller; Mowgli's portion of The Jungle Books; The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and Daniel Mannix's achingly sad The Fox and the Hound (the novel, not the awful Disney cartoon), all steeped in the "ache of exile from Eden," as Le Guin terms this particular melancholy. Elsewhere she provides a cold-eyed, feminist assessment of works she believes betray that Eden, namely Watership Down and the Redwall series—books I've never been able to read. Now I don't need to feel guilty.

Still, despite all the insights offered by her in this book and numerous others over the years, Ursula Le Guin has a lot to answer for. In "The Young Adult in YA," another essay in Cheek by Jowl, she harks back to the origins of Ged and the Roke Island school of magic in A Wizard of Earthsea:

How did kids get to be old wizards? By being young wizards, evidently. Learning the craft, going to wizard school?

Huh. Hey. There's an idea….

The conception not just of a school of magic, but of a child gifted with an essentially unlimited power who needs—urgently needs—to learn how to know and control such power. That is a big idea. It reverberates. It contains worlds.

No kidding.

Le Guin doesn't take credit for this enthralling notion: she tries to pass the buck—"In The Sword in the Stone, T. H. White has Merlin say something funny about going to wizard school, and I'm sure there are other predecessors."

But I can't find the offending passage in White, so I'm going to blame Le Guin for what happened next ("next" being wizard-speak for "many years later"). Not the Harry Potter books, which I enjoyed, or even the Harry Potter phenomenon, which, as a parent of HP fans, I also enjoyed.

What irks me is the gentrification of fantasy (I'm a middle-aged bobo, therefore irked by gentrification in all its forms), which has grown so all-encompassing that I impatiently await Martha Stewart's contribution to the genre.

"The monstrous homogenization of our world has now almost destroyed the map, any map, by making every place on it like every other place, and leaving no blanks," writes Le Guin in "The Critics, the Monsters and the Fantasists." She's talking about our world, the "real" world here; but I fear she could be talking about Faerie, too. "No unknown lands.… No Others; nothing unfamiliar…the enormously large and the infinitesimally small are exactly the same, and the same always leads to the same again.…" Le Guin states that by reinventing our mundane world, fantasists (I'm unashamedly one of them) "are perhaps trying to assert and explore a larger reality than we now allow ourselves. They are trying to restore the sense—to regain the knowledge—that there is somewhere else, anywhere else, where other people may live another kind of life."

This is a consolatory gift of fantasy, as Le Guin goes on to note. Yet it is not the consolation, which is found only in the greatest kind of fantasy (Le Guin's among them), "the eucacastrophic tale, the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function," as Tolkien famously states in "On Fairy Stories": "a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur."

It is this singular, once-in-a-lifetime, take-your-breath-away grace note that seems absent from much contemporary fantasy. Not because it's badly written—there may be more well-written fantasy around today than ever, perhaps due to the proliferation not just of university writing programs but of independent science fiction and fantasy writing programs such as Clarion and Odyssey—but because the self-referential, recursive nature of so much contemporary fantasy literature has made it increasingly difficult for a writer to deliver that grace note, without it sounding like it's been already been winded on someone else's ivory horn. Our marvels have grown commonplace. Fairy fruit's available at Costco now, and Whole Foods.

Laura Miller addresses this and similar issues in The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia, the best work I've ever encountered on the art and consequences of childhood reading. Miller, a co-founder of Salon.com, is a topnotch critic there and at the New York Times, among many other places. Along with Michael Dirda at the Washington Post, she's one of the few mainstream critics who has the chops and acumen to treat fantasy as serious literature. The Magician's Book tracks her childhood obsession with C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, and her subsequent efforts to square her love of those novels with the rebarbative, even toxic, effect that Lewis's Christianity can have on adult non-believers.

Reading fantasy is all about entering the land of heart's desire. In Miller's case, this desideratum centered on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

I had found a new world, which at the same time felt like a place I'd always known existed. It wouldn't have occurred to me to be wistful about the fact that I'd never read this perfect book for the first time again. All I wanted was more.
Wanting "more," of course, is what gets Edmund into trouble with the White Witch's enchanted Turkish Delight, and at times The Magician's Book reads like a Narnian Twelve-Step Meeting, à la Readercon's annual Bookaholic's Anonymous gathering. Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Susanna Clarke all check in with their first and/or multiple encounters with Narnia. "Do the children who prefer books set in the real, ordinary, workaday world ever read as obsessively as those who would much rather be transported into other worlds entirely?" Miller wonders. "…I kept hearing stories, like my own, of countless, intoxicated readings." My own childhood reading was, across the board, so similar to Miller's that my answer was No; an interesting subset of that question might be, How many children who read books set in the workaday world grow up to be mainstream writers?

Of course, children read all kinds of fantasies obsessively, especially series books—Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings (my childhood desideratum), A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Wheel of Time, the Eragon books, et al. But there's something particularly ironic in the devotion certain children have to Narnia. For Lewis, the obsessive desire to repeat a pleasurable experience (all that Turkish Delight!) is cognate with the Christian notion of Original Sin, at least in his 1943 science fiction novel Perelandra, the middle book in his Interplanetary Trilogy. Perelandra is the Edenic planet (Venus) where humanity's fall seems doomed to be repeated by its sole native inhabitants, the Green Lady and her male consort, and witnessed by a human visitor, Ransom. "He was now neither hungry nor thirsty," thinks Ransom, who has just tasted the planet's fairy fruit.

And yet to repeat a pleasure so intense and almost so spiritual seemed an obvious thing to do…Yet something seemed opposed to this 'reason'…Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.
The itch to have things over again, as if life were a film that could be enrolled twice or even made to work backwards…was it possibly the root of all evil?

What would Lewis have made of our tweeting, twittering, endless YouTube-loop of a world, where pleasures (including literary ones) exist solely to be repeated, to the extent that one can feel trapped in a Möbius loop of cultural references, Middle Earth morphing into Narnia morphing into Hogwarts morphing into —

Lev Grossman's provocative, problematic, unputdownable The Magicians, a clever, beautifully written fantasy that flickers right on the border of greatness. Grossman's another critic (Time magazine) who gets fantasy right by "getting" it—he groks it, we'd say back in the day. His first novel, Warp, featured a twenty-something Star Trek fan flailing about as he confronts the usual issues of adult life: love, career, meaning, dilithium crystals. His second, Codex, ratcheted down the nerd factor slightly, by centering on a lost medieval manuscript and a malign computer game. Codex was a surprise bestseller, which gave Grossman the freedom to let his geek flag fly with The Magicians, a love letter to the fantasy genre that seeks to offer a gentle corrective to its escapist pleasures. Just as the Artemis Fowl books were marketed as "Die Hard with Elves," The Magicians will be hyped as one of summer's big books: "Harry Potter for Grownups."

I propose a drinking game—let's all chug a pint of butterbeer every time we hear that catch-phrase used to describe The Magicians. It's what Grossman's protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, would do. Seventeen as the novel opens, Quentin is dispiritedly facing his college interview with an elderly Princeton alum, desperately wishing the cold streets of Brooklyn were the cobblestone ones of Fillory, the magical kingdom captured in the beloved series penned by Christopher Plover. "Only an American Anglophile could have created a world as definitively English, more English than England, as Fillory." Plover died before completing the fifth novel in his sequence,* a book whose dissatisfactions deliberately echo those of Lewis's The Last Battle.

But before you can point your wand and shout Expeller adfectatus philologus!, a lost manuscript of The Magicians: Book Six of Fillory and Further, is thrust into Quentin's limp grasp. Before you can mutter narratus retexo!, it disappears; and before you can gasp "Rowling v. RDR Books" Quentin has stumbled through a portal and arrived at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy.

Brakebills has nothing to do with Fillory: it's a real, live magical place where potential students must pass a demanding entrance exam that makes the SAT look like something out of Quizrocket.com. Googlemaps locates it in upstate New York, somewhere between Bard College, John Crowley's Invisible College, and Donna Tartt's Hampden College. But—there is no other way to put it—this is Hogwarts for grownups, or grownups who fondly recall their lost youth, anyway. The students swear, drink to excess, have sex (occasionally with their instructors) and otherwise misbehave the way we all did betwixt perfecting Fergus's Spectral Armory and Magic Missiles in the duller portions of Practical Applications class.

The novel follows Quentin and his friends through their years at Brakebills to graduation and beyond, when they settle, as one does, into magical slacker life in downtown Manhattan. Turns out that graduating with a degree in magic prepares one for real life about as well as a degree in comparative lit, or cultural anthropology. Though magic solves the problem of earning a living—the Brakebills equivalent of Rowling's Ministry of Magic provides dull-as-wishwater jobs. Or you can just use magic, duh.

But there are still the problems of Meaning, Love, Commitment, even Spiritual Belief—at one point, Grossman trots out a tedious Brakebills grad who's a Christian enchanter. The character and his argument for a Magical Prime Mover were unconvincing, but I appreciated Grossman's effort to present Another View. So Quentin finds that possessing one's heart's desire doesn't make one happy—even going to a magical college and learning to work real magic, having a real magical girlfriend and real magical sex, drinking magical shooters and taking magical drugs—none of it's enough. (Well it damn well would be for me, I thought, but I'm twice Quentin's age and flunked Practical Apps.)

But it's still not Fillory, the fictional Lost Domain that captivated Quentin and all his friends as children. And if for one New York second you didn't think that the Brakebills crew was going to end up there, well, have I got some prime land in the Dead Marshes for you!

Harold Bloom once rather alarmingly described David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus as "Through the Looking Glass as it might have been written by Thomas Carlyle." The Magicians is Harry Potter as it might have been written by John Crowley. Over and above the Smokey Barnable-esque Quentin Coldwater and his innamorata Alice, whose names form a widdershins anagram of Little, Big's Alice Drinkwater, avid readers will enjoy getting all the Crowleyesque references to other classic fantasy novels—the Hogwartian instructors and spells; the Looking-Glass-World chessboard game that's Brakebill's answer to quidditch; the chapter in which Quentin and his cohort are turned into birds as part of their magical education, à la the Wart in the U.S. edition of The Once and Future King. There's little point complaining that The Magicians derives from Harry Potter, Little, Big, the Narnia books, The Sword in the Stone, and a zillion other novels—the borrowing is the point (though not the only one), along with Grossman's prose, which is luminous and will, I suspect, stand up to multiple readings by readers who cut their teeth on J. K. Rowling's books but are now ready for something more sophisticated—Grossman's target audience, I'm sure, and a vast one it is. It's all beautifully done, and it all fits seamlessly into Grossman's meticulously designed, overarching meta-narrative.

Yet I kept wondering why (apart from the marketing angle, which is one huge Because) Grossman didn't just write his own damn novel? He's certainly up to the task. Bloom published an homage to Lindsay's book, a novel titled The Trip to Lucifer, which he's since disavowed; The Magicians is a far more successful work than that, but it doesn't quite pull off the trick of being an original book composed of other fantasy novels, the way that Little, Big is composed of children's books. Part of this is that we've seen this trick before, in books and graphic novels like The Sandman, as well as films and TV series such as The Tenth Kingdom. Part of it is that Grossman embraces his original models and their conventions so tightly that he can't breathe much new air into them—the faux-Edwardian boarding school feel of Brakebills; the fact that sorcery and modern electronics don't mix (there is little texting at Brakebills); the fact that all the young protagonists are whip-smart, middle-class, educated sorts whose parents would almost certainly have shelled out for the Brakebills College Prep Course, had such a thing been available.

What makes this even more aggravating is that when Grossman focuses his energy and exceptional talent on original material, rather than a pastiche of White or Rowling, he creates truly spectacular set-pieces. The chapter where a Brakebills class is disrupted by the inadvertent summoning of a seemingly benign, even banal entity, is one of the most frightening and unexpected scenes I've read in years. The long sequence that begins as an homage to the avian shapeshifting in The Sword in the Stone develops into a glorious, strange, and powerfully moving paean to enchantment that is all Grossman's own. Ditto the exquisite, fractal transitional world that he summons late in the novel, when Quentin and his friends finally journey to Fillory.

A deeper problem, I think, is that in many ways The Magicians aspires to be both a critique of the fantasy genre, as well as a full-blooded fantasy novel. Grossman wants to have his potion and drink it too. Other writers have grappled with this, notably M. John Harrison in his Viriconium sequence and later short stories, and especially in his 1992 novel The Course of the Heart, a book that The Magicians sometimes resembles.

Harrison's solution is to deny his readers the solace of seeing what's on the other side of the enchanted wardrobe. He brilliantly constructs fantasy narratives, utilizing all the tricks at his disposal: he's like a master stage magician enticing his audience through the traditional steps in a magic show: the Pledge, or build-up; the Turn, where the trick is actually played; and finally the Prestige, where the disappeared object returns, the woman sawed in half bounds to her feet again, and so on. In fantasy terms, the Prestige is roughly analogous to Tolkien's eucatastrophe, but Harrison is having none of it. In an interview in Parietal Games: Critical Writings by and on M. John Harrison, he says

…the whole point…is to bring the reader to the point where normally they would go through the portal, they would be allowed to go through the portal, encouraged to go through the portal.… Most of my short stories are kind of portal fantasies but you are not allowed through into the imaginary country, you're not allowed to believe in the fantasy. You're not allowed through, or it's undermined, or it's shown to be just as ordinary as what you left—which is actually the one I favor—mainly because what I'm trying to get the reader to do in that kind of story is this: if you run the reader as quickly as possible through the narrative with plenty of narrative push-through, plenty of speed, you get a crash at the end, you get a real sense of "Whoo! Why aren't I allowed through?" or "I walked through the door and there was no room on the other side" or "I just fell" or "the door was slammed in my face." That is a violent collision.… What happens to the reader in that instant? What happens to the particular fantasy in that instant of coming off the rails?.… To actually see what makes fantasy work, especially how it transfers from our heads to a made narrative. Or at least to make the reader question both the nature of fantasy and the nature of reality.
I quote this lengthy observation because, for much of his wildly ambitious novel, it seems to be exactly what Grossman is about, too. But I think he loses it when the action shifts to Fillory, where, despite his best efforts, The Magicians relies on those three clichés against which Le Guin inveighed. The characters are white (though maybe I missed something; they all seemed like pretty bland white young urbanites to me); in Fillory, it's sort of the middle ages; and there's a battle between good and evil. And while Grossman gives lip service to the notion that Quentin and his friends aren't quite sure whose side they're on in the final showdown, it was pretty clear to me where the lines were drawn.

Finally, I didn't buy the ending, which seemed more a sop to readers' expectations (and the possibility of a sequel) than anything else. Still, my caveats all stem from the fact that this is one of the best fantasies I've read in ages, and I wanted it to be, you know, perfect. I wanted more.

Turkish Delight, anyone?


* Although I counted six titles: not sure if this is an intended part of some mystery I have not solved or a printer's error in my Advanced Reader's Copy.

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