by Lev Grossman
At first glance it seems almost precious: a novel about a young man who’s inducted into a secret university for wizards, and the schooling he gets there, and then also about the series of children’s books that inspired said young man with a love for magic and what he finds out about them. But this isn’t a sterile exercise in post-modernism. Grossman’s characters live, his prose catches real magic — something that’s a necessity for a book about magic, and a book about books of magic — and there’s a fertility of imagination and invention that convinces. The imagery of clocks and fountains, suitably redolent of Narnia, is worked nicely into the overall structure of the book.
Where the book seems to have a problem, in fact, is in the excessive debt to C.S. Lewis. While the structure of it seems like a parody of Harry Potter, with sexually and pharmaceutically aware college-age students in place of oddly asexual high-schoolers, in fact the heart of it tries to enter into a dialogue with Lewis and the Christian beliefs that are at the heart of the Narnia books. The difficulty is, Grossman’s characters don’t really carry the philosophical or experiential heft that they need to really struggle in a meaningful way with Lewis. They don’t have the intellectual equipment or life experiences necessary to engage with him. That could be intentional; this would then be the ultimate parody of children’s fantasy, a story in which the protagonists are too small to really matter, and, only half-aware of their lack, throw trivial complaints against the architect of their destiny. But it seems unlikely.
The magcians who we follow in the book seem meant to represent people of talent, if not of genius. But none of them seem to think deeply; none of them seem aware of, or moved by, art or philosophy or religion or anything else on a profound level. In that sense, the central conceit of Grossman’s book works against itself: These characters are all linked by their love of a fictional series of children’s books, but none of them seem to have the mental or spritual equipment to move beyond that. I don’t mean leaving children’s books behind for some more “adult” literature; I mean reading in an adult way, whether what is read is nominally for adults or not. It’s that evolution in the reader that really, I think, reveals the quality in a good children’s book — the fact that you can come back to the book as a different, older, person, and still find the book worth reading.
Of course, the experiences the titular magicians undergo in the book are presumably meant to depict the process by which they come to maturity. It’s just that I wasn’t entirely convinced. Certainly the characters, by the end of the book, are older; it’s difficult to tell if they’re wiser. In a sense, the facility of Grossman’s writing is a drawback here; it sometimes seems glib, 'facile’ in the usual, negative, sense. That said, it’s far more often perceptive, gentle, thoughtful, and unexpected. So in the end, the journey here is worth following. It takes you places you wouldn’t imagine, and keeps you involved and engages as it does. I just wonder whether more profound travelling companions would make the experience richer.