30 August 2012

Everybody knows it sucks to grow up

I liked this book in equal proportion to how much I disliked its protagonist.

The fictional magical college, Brakebills, at which most of THE MAGICIANS is set is outwardly closest to Hogwarts of the HARRY POTTER series, but not as close as I would have believed given the glibities of describing this book as "Harry Potter for grownups." That's some of the story, bu not the whole story. Hogwarts just picks up where all those English-boarding-school novels left off, giving a new plausibility to students' choosing to go to boarding school (particularly for an American audience in which these institutions are rare, and considered either for the super-rich, the red-shirted or the troubled [or all of those]). It's not just because your aristocratic parents don't want you underfoot any more.

Quentin Coldwater, THE MAGICIANS' hero of sorts, is a smart an isolated high school student in Brooklyn who finds a passage to Brakebills and decides, more or less immediately, to leave his friends and family behind and enroll. This is in keeping with the senior-year-of-high-school mindset, and think of all the teen movies that start with the protagonist switching schools or making themselves over in some way with the goal of being unrecognizable. (Later, Quentin will reflect back on his upbringing with a venom that frankly shocked me and didn't seem supported by what we have known about them, so we know that he can never go back.)

When my book club discussed THE MAGICIANS earlier this month, we split pretty fiercely on it, including on whether Quentin is at all altered during his five years studying at Brakebills and what happens to him after. I thought he was altered, but I couldn't identify at the time what the dimensions of them were, only that Quentin becomes more and more unlikeable even as the plot presses us to root for him. I think I recognize it now: Quentin arrives at Brakebills a 17-year-old kid and proceeds to go through the whole roil of adolescence while he's there, stirring up a range of emotions he doesn't know how to deal with. In his previous life, he was content to go along; now the full forces of anger, superiority, jealousy etc. are hitting him and it makes him act (as teenagers often do) like an asshole. Whatever he had suffered before, it was just a trial run.

Quentin's just a late bloomer, and in some ways I sympathize, but he is fairly unpleasant to be around for most of this book. Sometimes it was hard to believe that his friends were still his friends. Practically the only person he can tolerate (who thus comes off fairly blandly) is his fellow advanced classmates, and in return he wounds her pretty deeply for her loyalty. Everyone else gets scorn to varying degrees. I know the disillusionment of discovering that his magic school isn't as fun or life-changing is supposed to help us empathize with Quentin, and it did sometimes. It's enough for me to see if Quentin gets his footing in the second part of Grossman's series, THE MAGICIAN KING. After all, Harry Potter went through this, and he came out all right. But that's not a very flattering comparison after all.

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