“There’s a special gut-check moment the first time you write a scene in which somebody casts a spell,” says novelist and Time book critic Lev Grossman, over drinks at a hotel bar in the Time Warner Building.
“I remember [‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ author] Susanna Clarke telling me about the first time she wrote a scene with a fairy in it and saying to herself, ‘Am I really writing a book with a fairy in it?’ It’s definitely a naked-lunch moment where you’re going through the portal and declaring yourself as a fantasy novelist.”
Grossman’s new novel “The Magicians” is his first clear declaration -- and, not coincidentally, his best book by a long margin. Spells are cast, demons unleashed; indeed, a fairy is present (albeit one who notes that “pixie” is the technical term). The novel manages a literary magic trick: It’s both an enchantingly written fantasy and a moving deconstruction of enchantingly realized fantasies.
Grossman has approached the portal before, in his slackerific 1997 debut, “Warp,” and “Codex” (2004), which set up mysterious resonances between a rare medieval manuscript and an interactive computer game. But “The Magicians” doesn’t just take us through the portal -- it’s about the portal. “I’ve always been interested in those moments when you cross between worlds,” Grossman says. He cites C.S. Lewis’ “Narnia” chronicles, Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth,” as well as the cartoon based on Dungeons and Dragons.
In the tradition
“The Magicians” is the story of Quentin Coldwater, an off-the-charts brainy, socially awkward high school senior from Brooklyn (where Grossman currently lives) who gets two unbelievable opportunities: to learn magic (at Brakebills College, a school in upstate New York) and to visit the land of Fillory, as described in his favorite fantasy series (a wholly convincing Grossman concoction). Why, then, is he so unhappy?
“There’s powerful anxiety-of-influence action going on when you’re attempting to slaughter an effigy of your elders and betters,” Grossman says. He’s talking about writing one’s own fantasy novel in the shadow of such giants as J.K. Rowling, Ursula K. Le Guin, the aforementioned Lewis and Clarke, T.H. White and Fritz Leiber.
Grossman might also be referring, more generally, to his own identity as a writer. As a book critic for Time, he covers the books you’d expect a major news weekly to cover, and enjoys it. He marvels at having met Philip Roth, Joan Didion, John Updike and other literary lions as part of his day job.
But he seems even more in awe (“It’s vastly exciting and stimulating”) at having met Clarke, Neil Gaiman, Stephenie Meyer and the high priestess of modern fantasy lit herself, Rowling. To the extent that he’s had a mission, he says, it is to treat “popular fiction with the same sort of critical tools you bring to literary fiction and see what comes out -- which is often important truths.”
Grossman floats free of genre demarcations, and it’s fascinating to piece together his road map of influences. As a Yale grad student, he got excited about Russian Byronism -- the Byron craze in Russia, “which resulted in a lot of amazing literature, almost all of which was better than actual Byron.” He calls the instance in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” when Junot Diaz unwinkingly compares the dictator of the Dominican Republic to Middle-earth’s Sauron “a great moment for nerdo-American culture.”
As a creative writer, he has had to contend with his family’s unusual intellectual dynamic. Both his father (poet Allen Grossman, whose many honors include a MacArthur fellowship and the Bollingen Prize) and his Oxford-educated mother (novelist and short story writer Judith Grossman) are lifelong academics. Growing up in Massachusetts, Grossman developed, to his parents’ consternation, an abiding interest in fantasy, science fiction, comics and video games. “It was an act of very calculated treason,” he says. “I was not a very rebellious child or rebellious teenager -- or rebellious adult! -- but to the extent that I was, my love of fantasy was it. These were not books my parents approved of or placed value on.” Slaying one’s elders and betters, indeed.
“Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, science fiction and especially fantasy had such a stigma attached to them,” he continues. “I felt so punished and exiled for being devoted to these things.” Time editor-at-large Josh Quittner, who hired Grossman for Time’s early e-portal, the Netly News, in the late 1990s, cheekily tweaks Grossman’s self-identification. “He would probably like to be thought of as a nerd, but frankly he’s just too cool,” Quittner says. “Lev is so cool that he puts nerds up on pedestals.”
There’s truth to this. By exalting nerd-dom in his criticism, by exploring its tropes in his fiction, Grossman is pushing an agenda, reworking a grudge and (along with the myriad talented authors he champions) transforming our awareness of what these reality-warping narratives might mean. For all its entertaining attention to the nuts-and-bolts of wizardry, “The Magicians” is a big book that tackles the themes that so-called serious literature does. And it draws its emotional power from the idea of power itself.
The first glimmering of “The Magicians” came in 1996, while Grossman was studying for his orals at Yale. In 2004, he exhumed the scene he’d written (a fearsome creature is accidentally unleashed in a class for young spell-slingers) and imagined the novel that might contain it. Even though he had enjoyed Rowling’s first five novels, he says, “it never dawned on me that anybody would ever connect this book with Harry Potter.”
The Rowling effect
A year later, his marriage was in disrepair. His employer sent him (in “an act of pity,” he imagines) to Britain, first to London to report on the set of “V for Vendetta,” then to Edinburgh to profile Rowling. Their “enjoyable” talk focused on her work, but somehow, in her presence, Grossman realized that his marriage was over. “It is undeniable that I returned, became separated at the end of July, [and] two weeks later finished the first draft of ‘The Magicians’ and wrote the ending.” In a strange way, thinking about fantasy had not simply been a diversion, or even part of a job, but marked a dramatic turning point in his actual life. “You couldn’t put it in a novel,” he says. “It’s not plausible.”
“Rowling herself is someone who came out of a bad marriage to write Harry Potter,” Grossman notes, and her books are “a fantasy of a young man realizing that he’s not powerless, and realizing the dangers of power.” If, as he suggests, the story of his divorce is “coded” into “The Magicians,” the cipher is well scrambled. But the idea of power permeates the pages, as Quentin gradually, even painfully awakens to what it is that he can do, and who it is he hurts.
Coded as well is the power that, we can imagine, Grossman realized in himself: that of becoming the novelist he was meant to be by unleashing all the rich material absorbed over the course of his fanboy life. In “The Magicians,” Grossman sheds for good the muted colors of his first two novels, takes up the wand that’s been on his mental mantel for decades, and at last wields all the necessary sorcery to make his fiction fly.