I see Lev Grossman's The Magician's Land has hit #1 on the New York Times Book Review Bestsellers List. And I have a few days of pretty much nothing in particular ahead of me, so I was thinking of picking up the series again.
I read The Magicians back a few years ago. It sounded pretty intriguing, and it was just the sort of thing I figured I'd enjoy: an ironic take on the classic English children's fantasy of the 20th Century, seen through the cynical, knowing prism of early 21st Century young-ish American adults — basically Harry Potter meets Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. But while I got through the book pretty quickly, I didn't really enjoy it. There was a frostiness about the characters, especially the protagonist. Grossman clearly intended his anti-hero Quentin Coldwater to be troubled, selfish, overconfident, and as his name implies, a bit of a cold fish. And generally I tend to like those sorts of characters. Even when I was a kid I couldn't stand the wholesome Disney-by-way-of-Joseph Campbell drips populating pre-Martinesque fantasy epics. (And I always hated the Narnia books.) But rather than just being unsympathetic, Quentin came off as a titanic asshole, the sort of guy you might hang out with for the first few weeks of your freshman year in college before realizing that you never wanted to be around that person, or anyone else like him, ever again.
But more importantly, there was a chilliness about the book itself. It felt like a novel written by someone who did not want to write fantasy novels, who didn't even really like fantasy that much at all, but was heavily invested in the genre emotionally through formative experiences in childhood and adolescence and was ultimately bound to it by a terrible gravity. After reading this interview with Lev and his brother Austin, I get the feeling that my judgement wasn't entirely off. It really does seem like Grossman would prefer to be seen as a serious writer for grown-ups — he is, after all, the literary critic for Time, and the son of two well-known writers — but, unlike Roth or Franzen or DeLillo, the only thing he could really get excited about writing, his sole real obsession, was magical horseshit that no proper literary author would touch with a ten-foot pole. He couldn't just write a fantasy novel, or an ironic pastiche of fantasy lit, or play around with tropes and expectations; he had to write a book about how, on some meta- level, his ongoing interest in the genre had damaged his estimation of himself as a "real" writer. The subtext of The Magicians is about how fantasy fiction can literally ruin your life.
(And maybe that accounts for the fact that Quentin is such a self-hating loser in The Magicians. He has all the powers of a Hogwarts grad, but it won't get him a nice respectable job in the real world, and there's nothing much going on in the magical realm. Being a wizard in Grossman's universe is ultimately not all that different from being an English major, except that the latter cannot conjure piles of enchanted cocaine. It's something that only other overeducated, underemployed, vaguely insecure people can appreciate. Lev's twin, Austin, doesn't come off anywhere near as uptight. I've read and enjoyed both of his novels, and am looking forward to the third. But then again, he doesn't seem to be trying to deconstruct his subject matter in his books quite so intensely — he comes off as someone who genuinely loves superhero comics and video games and doesn't worry that he might be seen as uncool or irrelevant.)
Am I being too harsh here? I know that there are loads of people who really enjoy this series, and I was in kind of a rotten mood when I read the first novel. But if I should read the new Murakami instead, give me a signal.
Oh yeah, Harkaway's Tigerman is great and you should all go out and buy two copies.