I have just finished Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, which despite being a New York Times bestseller has been read by only one person I know so far (the woman who passed me her copy, after seeing it on my Amazon wishlist), and I am contemplating turning it over and reading it again. I don’t think I’ve done this since Ursula Le Guin’s Beginning Place. It is that good, if you are a Fillory kind of person.
Fillory — the name evokes a picture of a theriomorphic and equine Secretary Clinton, but that is my sick mind I guess — stands in for Narnia in Grossman’s universe, a world chronicled lovingly in iconic children’s books cherished by a certain type of discontented person, the sort of person who never quits believing on some level that magic could exist and there could be a door to another, realer world — in the wall, through a wardrobe, along the light cast by Mars, through the Lotus Room or through a looking-glass, as it has happened in one book after another.
Grossman is a bit of a deconstructionist at first blush. His story, despite the Fillory references in the opening chapter, comes across more as a gloss on the Harry Potter books, and he seems to be saying that genuine magical education would be more difficult and gritty, yet simultaneously less ennobling, than it is in the books of Rowling and all those who influenced her. He is a master of the hand-clapping “yes!” moment when his reader recognizes a familiar text reworked — the flight of Wart as a goose from White’s Sword in the Stone, the Wood Between The Worlds (deftly re-imagined as a deserted city whose buildings contain only books) from Lewis’ Magician’s Nephew. But he is also cruelly adroit with the wincing “Yeah, you’re right” moment in which it becomes apparent that a young, privileged, arrogantly bright kid from the modern world, confronted by these infinite possibilities and realities, is just as likely to be, well, an asshole as any of his mundane peers, preoccupied with achievement and crushes and the liberty to drink and squander his talents.
But Grossman has put his finger on an important thing: the yearning for the window to open and let us through, the desire to escape — as Lewis said, “escapism” is usually pronounced condescendingly, but what if the escape imagined were from a prison?
I imagined that door opening when I was young, over and over again.
“Oh, Kitty, how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-Glass House! I’m sure it’s got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it somehow, Kitty. Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through — ” She was up on the chimney-piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.
“In another minute Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-Glass room.”
Or in Grossman’s words:
“It was almost like the Fillory books — especially the first one, The World in the Walls — were about reading itself. When the oldest Chatwin, melancholy Martin, opens the cabinet of the grandfather clock that stands in a dark, narrow back hallway in his aunt’s house and slips through into Fillory… it’s like he’s opening the covers of a book, but a book that did what books always promised to do and never actually quite did: get you out, really out, of where you were and into somewhere better.”
I am going to be fifty-seven my next birthday, and I don’t find any codified religion, for example, worth my investment because they all seem to be foolproof methods for misinterpreting the life you have, but the same could be said of the secular value systems, bloated with smug conventional wisdom, that insist everything is all about self-esteem and appropriateness and success and social contracts and shit like that.
I took a side path out of a local park one day when I was not so young, but far younger than now, and for a moment as I emerged from the trees I could see no work of man, only a long light-drenched meadow, and thought holy crap, I’ve done it, I got through. Of course it was over in an instant, the horizon cluttered with houses and power poles and road signs.
I keep hoping to get through somehow, nonetheless.