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Review: The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

All things must end. “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” Etc., etc. Seven years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, many readers continue to mourn the loss of the Boy Who Lived. Someone, somewhere, always will. It’s not for Harry they shed tears, of course, but for themselves, for growing up and giving up the ability to totally immerse themselves in other worlds, for the sacrifice of childhood to adulthood and the innocence that goes with it.

And after four years and three books, beginning with The Magicians, through The Magician King, and ending now with The Magician’s Land (Viking Adult, August 5, 2014), Lev Grossman makes clear that that was his subject all along: The loss of the worlds we inhabit as children, our desperate efforts to retain them, and, ultimately, our quest to move on, to strike out anew in an undiscovered country.

The Magician's Land, Lev Grossman

The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

It is apt to compare Harry Potter and the world of The Magicians Trilogy, as the latter is a response to the former, with some Narnia thrown in for good measure. But if Harry Potter’s universe is one characterized by authenticity, by sincerity, then Grossman’s creation is a jaundiced one, not seen through a glass darkly, but ironically. The cheeky tone of Grossman’s storytelling is likely to have put off readers who take seriously their diversions into fantasy, but it is, ultimately, the right approach: How else to deal with a story that’s been told countless times? How else to avoid maudlin tropes and sentimentality? As Umberto Eco writes in his Postscript to the Name of the Rose, once a sentiment has become wrote, it can only be expressed sincerely via the mechanism of irony. It’s altogether fitting in these self-referential and hyperaware times that an author tell his story with a wink and a nudge.

Of course, readers unfamiliar with Grossman’s previous work will wonder just what I’m getting at. In short, The Magicians Trilogy is set in a world in which (surprise) magic is real. Gifted young men and women are spirited off to Brakebills Academy (think Hogwarts, natch) to learn the intricacies of sorcery. Lest readers longing to belong to such a world get all dewy eyed, know that the learning of magic is grueling, arduous process accomplished only by the most brilliant students. It isn’t fun. To top it all off, the fairy tale world of Fillory (see: Narnia) turns out to be real, and is at once more horrible and goofy than a reader might expect, unless that reader is revisiting as an adult the books she consumed as a child, and thinking, “Talking animals, huh? I really enjoyed this?” But of course you did; it was written with children in mind.

Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman

Not so The Magician’s Land. Readers know that Quentin Coldwater, Grossman’s protagonist, and his friends survived Fillory in The Magicians and became its kings and queens in The Magician King. Cast out of Fillory by the ram-god Ember, Quentin is a young(ish) man adrift when The Magician’s Land opens. He finds his way back to Brakebills and becomes an adjunct professor, learning his focus (minor mendings), teaching, and working on a project inspired by a stray page captured in the Neitherlands (sort of a transdimensional interchange). Quentin enjoys himself; he’s growing up. Needless to say, things fall apart: A prank played by a student, Plum, on one of her peers goes awry, and Quentin is implicated. Plum inadvertently summons into Brakebills a niffin (demon) not unknown to Quentin–Alice, last seen at the end of The Magicians. Quentin and Plum are dismissed from Brakebills and take up “mercenary” work, a path that will ultimately lead them back to Fillory. Which, it should be said, is dying, and can’t be saved.

If that all seems like a bit much, well, it is, but Grossman handles it much more adeptly than I. Grossman shifts his perspective from Quentin and Plum (in our world) to Eliot and Janice (in Fillory) and back again, without losing the thread. Readers will not find themselves lost; Grossman does not overreach. His worlds are approachable and do not require extensive exposition in order to understand them. His attention to the details of his worlds is impressive. There is a description of Plum’s and Quentin’s time as whales (it will make sense when you read it) that is especially striking. All of which is to say that, for all his irony, Grossman is capable of creating truly mysterious and inspiring lands.

Perhaps the most affecting part of The Magician’s Land is an extensive chapter given over to Rupert Chatwin’s diary, written just before his death in North Africa in World War II. The Chatwin children, of course, were the original discoverers of Fillory, and one in particular, Martin, played a key role in The Magicians. Grossman, via Rupert, tells the story of Edwardian English children abandoned by their parents and “rescued” by the world of Fillory. It is an association that has serious consequences for all of the Chatwin children. More than Rupert’s tale, though, it serves as Martin’s “backstory,” a belated but layered introduction to Fillory’s mythology.

If there is a weakness in The Magician’s Land, it is a certain disjointedness in Grossman’s storytelling. Certain events do not seem to serve much purpose, and characters are introduced only to disappear later on. Perhaps this is to be expected, as it reflects the realities of our everyday lives. Still, some aspects of the novel seem tucked in with the intention of neatly wrapping up threads from other books, rather than serving to organically advance the plot of The Magician’s Land. (The subplot of Plum’s and Quentin’s post-Brakebills operation and their encounter with Betsy comes to mind.) It’s almost as if Grossman is lamenting the loss of the world he created, and needs to revisit every character one last time. Still, this is a minor quibble in an otherwise successful novel.

And if Grossman feels a sense of loss as he completes his trilogy, it’s understandable. Not only is The Magicians Trilogy his baby, but that nostalgia is his subject. Quentin, having found Fillory and lost it, must come to grips with life after the fantasy. We as readers must do so, too; we are no longer the tweens who grew up with Harry Potter. As Grossman suggests, we needn’t abandon our childhoods altogether, nor can we accept them with the rose-colored lenses of youth. We look on, unblinking, and honor them with jokes and snide remarks that cut them down to their true size and show them for what they really are. We can never lose our childhoods, since they are part of us and will always inform who we are. You should make a point of making Fillory part of your world. A humorous and well written conclusion to a successful trilogy, The Magican’s Land is highly recommended.

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Review: YOU, Austin Grossman

We of a certain age (When did we get this old?) grew up with video games. That is, we (more or less) matured with the medium. We were gamers before video games were mainstream. Sure, the jocks played Nintendo, too, but we were the ones who emerged, dazed, from our parents’ basements after a marathon session, pale and hollow-eyed, squinting at that damned bright orb in the sky. We had worlds to explore. World to conquer. Why waste time chasing a ball?

You, Austin Grossman

You, Austin Grossman

Austin Grossman beautifully captures the role video games play in our lives in his sophomore novel, YOU (Mulholland Books).

YOU begins when Russell, ivy league graduate and law school dropout, aimless, adrift, interviews for a position at the game studio Black Arts. The catch: Black Arts is the successful brainchild of two of Russell’s former friends and high school classmates, Darren and Simon. Simon, the troubled genius who created Black Arts’s signature line, Realms of Gold, died several years earlier in a freak accident. Lisa, also part of Russell’s high school crew, is a programmer at Black Arts. Despite a desultory interview, and absolute inexperience with games, Black Arts hires Russell as a designer. Russell proves himself an apt designer, but as he and his colleagues toil over the next entry in Realms of Gold, they begin encountering, with increasing frequency, a catastrophic bug that threatens the success of the game. Thus begins Russell’s (and the reader’s) journey down the rabbit hole of late 90s video game design.

It’s clear that Grossman is familiar with the process of game production. (Indeed, he worked as a game designer on Epic Mickey and Dishonored, among others.) And the details Grossman provides ring true: The programmers camping out in sleeping bags under their desks; the rivalries and resentments between different departments; the vampire existence that begins to set in as it becomes normal to stay at work until 2 or 3 in the morning and return to the office around lunchtime the same day. Grossman has lived this, and he provides readers a window into the everyday lives of game developers.

If the anthropology of game makers is of interest to readers, it is Russell’s relationship with his friends Simon, Darren, and Lisa, that will be more widely recognizable. Grossman structures YOU in “ages,” i.e., “The First Age,” “The Second Age,” mirroring the mythical timeline of Simon’s opus, Realms of Gold. Russell and his friends met during a high school programming class, a collaboration that spawned the first Realms of Gold game. Even then, the personalities that would flower in adulthood were evident: Simon, the eccentric loner; Darren, the charismatic leader; Lisa, so left brained that she is practically alienated from emotion. And Russell? Russell is, oddly, something of an empty shell. Russell is the odd-man-out, the one who will abandon his friends as he readies himself for college and, presumably, a less nerdy adulthood. Russell’s seeming dearth of personality is at first troubling, but eventually provides readers payoff as he discovers himself. It’s a trait, also, that Grossman cleverly uses to permit readers to project themselves into the story.

Of course, YOU is about video games, or, rather, the meaning of video games, why they matter, why they’re so important to so many people. And, as the title of the book suggests, it’s not about the game, really. It’s about you. Games, like books, permit users to project themselves into the story, to explore new worlds and new modes of thought, and, ultimately, to discover themselves. As Grossman says, it’s “[y]ou and the machine, like Scheherazade and her king mixed up together in one, trying over and over to tell yourself your own story, and get it right.” Highfalutin, perhaps, when one considers that many games are based on fast cars and guns and bombs, but any player will realize that there’s truth in what Grossman says. Like Simon, we’re creating ourselves, even if we need to get away from this world in order to do it.

YOU is not all nostalgia for lost adolescence or rhapsodic prose about the power of games, although those elements are present. (And Grossman is judicious in his use of them.) There is humor here, too, of a surreal sort, that vaguely reminded me of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Russell becomes so absorbed in game design that he begins to have dreams about Realm of Gold characters. He asks the wizard, Lorac, if Lisa might have a crush on him. “Isn’t this more of a Brennan question?” Lorac replies, referring to his warrior teammate. Lisa’s left-brainedness is both tragic and comic: She doesn’t know what it means for a game to be “fun,” and, playing an Asteroids-style arcade game, she just wants to use her “triangle” to shoot the other shapes on the screen.

YOU is a pleasure to read, an ode to video games and nostalgia and the pain of growing up and finding one’s place in life. Like the lives of Grossman’s characters, the novel isn’t perfect. The plot is threadbare, a vehicle, really, to explore the history of Russell and his friends, and at times in meanders. Grossman sometimes veers into sentimentality, but readers who know some of Simon’s pain won’t mind. (And if we can’t be sentimental in novels, where can we be?) YOU isn’t fantasy and it isn’t sci-fi, but those elements are present. A well-told story about friendship and life (and videogames), YOU is highly recommended.