I left in the middle of Q&A, while the fans - a smattering of twenty-something white girls, a few with scraggly boyfriends - were trading in-jokes with Grossman and his crew. It had the gross air of desperate flirting or a job interview. However, I did shell out for Grossman's first novel and spent the time since reading it so you don't have to. And you don't want to because The Magicians, celebrated as a new Harry Potter, is nothing more than an overlong angst-wank for the dweebs in Park Slope.
The Chosen One of this latest campbellian knock-off is one Quentin Coldwater, an overachieving coastalite like the majority of Americans never encounter in person. These people do exist, they're just a much slimmer majority than even they know, owing to a Manhattan literati that wants to read the same story over and over again, as exemplified in the works of Jonathan Franzen. Grossman is on record as a fan and he's learned his master's lesson because The Magicians has a central schtick to differentiate it from every other magical academy of whimsy: Quentin is a fan of a Narnia-knockoff series about these Anglo children adventuring in the magical land of Fillory. This allows Quentin to constantly compare his own muddling non-adventures to the heroic excitement of these kids' books.
This serves two stated purposes - and Grossman really did state this at his egopalooza. First, it presents Quentin as someone who already "knows" how these sorts of stories playout when he's invited to the Brakesbills post-secondary magickal learnatorium (accreditation not recognized in Trinidad).Which than leads into number two - "This is real life!" in which even this magical land he escapes to is just as dull and cruel as his regular life. It's not as exciting as it sounds...
Grossman is trying to deconstruct the Harry Potter formula into a much darker coming of age tale, complete with drinking and curse words. Problem is, this was already done years ago in Peter Straub's magnificent Shadowloand. Further, Grossman can't divorce himself from his characters long enough to do a proper psychological novel. A Brooklyn native himself, it's hard not to read Quentin as thinly veiled autobiography, mixed with wish fulfillment. Grossman is either too honest or just lacking in imagination to make Quentin into the all-conquering champion he wants... but he won't stop pointing out just how special Quentin is either. He's unique because he still believes in magic, even though all his classmates are turning fashionably cynical and the headmaster doesn't really give a damn. This sort of solipsism kills the broader metafictional point Grossman is trying to make, but it's exactly the sort of nonsense that drives the YA market so he's getting a SyFy series.
Let's hope they re-work the characters because the ones on display here are damned atrocious. Quentin and his childhood friends, Julia and that other one, are the sort of overachieving knobs you never met if you went to a real high school. New York City has this deal where kids test into certain advanced placement schools and New Yorkers are annoyingly oblivious to the fact that this is not the norm in American eduction. Rowling's approach of making Harry some suburban nobody was one of the few things she did right because that makes him relatable to the reader; Quentin already has fantastical and alien life, illustrated in dozens of little details you only pick up if you live in Brooklyn. His friends, first in the muggle world and then at Brakesbills, are equally from the same overachieving coastal enclave background, making them about as relatable as
Then there's Elliot, the sort of interesting non-New Yorker that New Yorkers of limited imagination always imagine. A romantic archetype of the gifted but cast out farm boy, resentful of his hayseed family who assume he's at some hoity toity art school for homosexuals. There's so much wrong with this characterization - for instance, a real rural America dirthead would say "fags" or "queers" - and it turns out Elliot really is homosexual. But it can't be the boring, "I just like cock," sort of homosexuality that, y'know actually exists. Grossman has to give this poor kid an elaborate domination and submission fetish.
Julia shows up as a hedge witch during one of the occasional Back in the World interludes, usually devoted to Quentin feeling ever more alienated from his parents because they just don't understand. Julia is rather competent at her hedge witchery, even though she had to go all goth to get it - though this further indicates Grossman's gross ignorance of contemporary trends as she's a fellow Park Slope overachiever and the goth thing was too old for such kids in Charlottesville, Virginia circa 2007. Further, her pursuit of witchery, while just as successful as Quentin's advanced sulking studies, is nontheless looked down on by the folks at Brakesbills, illustrating a class distinction which Grossman naturally doesn't bother to explore.
And then there's Alice. Child of a magical family, the highly-capable natural to Quentin's muddling everyman - at least I think that was Grossman's intention. And because this story is supposed to be for grown-ups as well as tweens, we get to read about 'em fuckin'. A lot. Sometimes they drink before or after, along with the rest of their social circle named Janet and Josh and there may have been others but I stopped paying attention somewhere in Book II. At least when little Frankie McCourt got into the champagne and sherry, it was low and funny enough to be interesting. Grossman, like so many typical New York writers, insists on making a big deal out of twenty-year-olds having a few drinks and shooting the shit.
It's a juvenile approach to sex and really juvenile sex is what this is all about. Some reality bending Beast makes an appearance to give the illusion of something threatening or interesting, but only after a hundred pages of Quentin's quest to fuck Alice. Which he does, and in keeping with this unconscious representation of a spoiled yuppie, he finds no joy in the long-awaited rutting. It all soon becomes just one more thing which Quentin finds to be so empty and wah wah Evanescence lyrics.
There's this forced refrain through the book of how Quentin isn't really such a two dimensional crybaby. How he's the only one who really finds magic to still be magical and it has to do with his fixation on the Fillory books, but Grossman would much rather tell than show. Even at four hundred pages, this reads like a rushed job. I swear a whole year passed between chapters at one point, with nary a comment or an episode of interest. As much as I scorn the marketing gimmick, Rowling still had the right idea of dedicated one book to one school year. Grossman glosses over anything that Quentin can't sulk over or that doesn't involve him and his rowdy friends saying "fuck" enough.
Of course, Grossman has to spell out this conflict: how Quentin's personal fairy land has heroic conflict, unlike the ugly fight with The Beast which is gruesome and disastrous. That sort of revelation happens long before the college years for anyone living in Gaza or Ferguson. Hell, anyone who's ever been in a playground fight.
And of course the Not-Narnia books turn out to be deeply relevant, with Fillory being a real magical land where those fussy Anglo kids have gone mad and mutated like Artorias the Abysswalker. Shit's not allowed to be random and meaningless in YA fiction, despite the past hree-hundred and some pages saying otherwise. Though Grossman does try to keep it real in the climax - Alice dies so Quentin can angst.
There. I saved you two weeks and four hundred pages. Watch the Syfy series if you really want or, better yet, just read Shadowland. It does the coming of age via studying magic with a dash of horror bit ten thousand times better than this overwritten wank.