I don’t know what made me start this book last Monday, just one day before Deborah Harkness’ The Book of Life was released. As I’ve said before, I’m working on a writing project right now that involves witches and the supernatural, and at some point last weekend, when Jill and I were on our quick little vacation in Tahoe and she was helping me talk through some plot points, I remembered that Lev Grossman’s trilogy exists and that the first two books were sitting in boxes in my basement, waiting for me. I bought them when they were first published on the strength of Grossman’s first novel, Codex, which I loved. I figured that anyone who could write a novel about video games, of all things, and make me like it was worth a hardcover purchase.
Reading this novel was a bit of an emotional roller coaster. After two chapters, I was completely hooked. The narrative voice is contemporary, allusive, smart, and sarcastic, and protagonist Quinten Coldwater is a plausible overachieving but unhappy high school senior. When the novel opens, Quinten is on his way to his Princeton interview. When he arrives, the alumnus who was scheduled to interview him turns out to be deceased. One thing leads to another, and within a chapter or two Quinten finds himself enrolled at Brakebills College of Magical Pedagogy.
The parallels with the Harry Potter series are plentiful, and they are intentional. As I felt my way through the first hundred or so pages of this novel, there were times when I gaped at how blatantly this author cribbed from J.K. Rowling (and also from C.S. Lewis – I’ll get to the Narnia connections in a moment). As time passed, though, I realized that Grossman was laying out these parallels for a specific reason.
In spite of his high grades and high ambitions, Quinten Coldwater has never given up his favorite set of fantasy novels from his childhood: a series called Fillory and Further by the fictional writer Christopher Plover. Fillory is a fictional world that bears a striking resemblance to Narnia, with all kinds of talking animals and walking trees and climate change issues. The five Chatwin children are invited to Fillory at the beginning of each novel to complete a quest of some kind. The oldest Chatwin child, Martin, escaped into the forest in Fillory in one of the novels and never returned – and the fictional author died before completing the series. As an unhappy adolescent (“Out there he had been on the edge of a serious depression, and worse, he had been in danger of learning to really dislike himself. He was on the verge of incurring the kind of inward damage you didn’t heal from, ever” ), Quinten secretly cherishes the fantasy that Fillory might be a real place and that he, like Martin Chatwin, might figure out how to go there and stay forever.
Life at Brakebills is quite a bit like life at Hogwarts, except with more liquor and sex. Quentin’s five years at Brakebills pass by quite quickly (his graduation after five years of study takes place close to the novel’s midpoint), unlike the methodical one-year-per-book pace of Rowling’s series, but Grossman still manages to draw out the characters of a dozen or so of Quinten’s classmates and a half dozen of his teachers. I’ll admit that reading this book made me wonder whether the Harry Potter books really needed to be as long as they were – did we really need one more Quidditch game? Do we need more evidence that Snape is dark and creepy? But never mind that.
Oh, and one more thing about Brakebills: BEST. STUDY ABROAD. PROGRAM. EVER. Seriously – this one plot element alone makes reading this novel worthwhile.
In the second half of the novel, Quentin and his friends (studious girlfriend Alice, inept but affable yahoo Josh, pretentious Eliot, and insecure cheerleader Janet) struggle unsuccessfully to find meaning in the real world after their graduation from Brakebills (which, I should add, could use a more comprehensive career counseling program for its graduates). Only Alice works productively to continue to study magic during these first couple of years out of college. The others descend into cynicism and debauchery and the hedonistic enjoyment of booze and sex. You know – just like Harry and Ginny and Hermione and Ron do in Book Eight: Harry Potter and the Festering Chancre.
And then a mysterious classmate named Penny (“a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking fucking time bomb” , according to Josh) shows up at the Manhattan penthouse Quinten shares with Alice. And a character named Richard arrives too – Richard graduated a few years before Quinten and Alice, although Eliot and Janet and Josh, who are older than Quinten and Alice, remember him – and Josh brings home a girlfriend named Anaïs – and the next thing you know our heroes are raiding their local REI and planning a trip to – long story short – Fillory. Which is real. But of course you knew that.
This novel is structured like a sine wave. I think this structure is intentional on Grossman’s part, though of course I can’t be sure. It seems to me that Grossman allowed parts of his book to become derivative and/or boring in order to lull the readers into expecting the eternal return of the familiar and formulaic. Readers of genre fiction like the familiar and the formulaic, after all. But in this novel, the use of tropes from other fantasy novels are a device that leads readers into complacency: they’re the downward-sloping parts of the sine curve. The upward-sloping parts of the sine curve, on the other hand, are pure narrative magic. Quinten’s entrance exam at Brakebills. The absolutely spellbinding semester Quinten and his classmates spend in Antarctica. The private graduation ceremony conducted by the dean after the formal public graduation ceremony is over. All of these moments – and a few others – are made even more effective by the fact that we encounter them at a time when we have been duped into thinking we are reading something derivative and trivial.
That said, for me the best parts of the book take place at Brakebills. I would have been happy to keep Quinten & Co. in school for another year or two – maybe for a master’s program in shapeshifting? Elements of the trip to Fillory are interesting, but there is no question that I read the first half of the book with much more interest and enjoyment than the second half. I can’t decide if I’m looking forward to reading the second book in this series or not. On the one hand, I trust Grossman as a storyteller. On the other hand, I don’t quite trust that anything that might happen in the next book will be as good as the Brakebills section of this novel. And let’s face it: adolescence is more interesting than adulthood. Adolescence is like an exponent that gets added to the intensity of a feeling or experience – and if the feeling or experience takes place during adolescence, it’s that much more intense and striking and textured. Jill and I are told from time to time that our best posts on this blog are the ones about high school and A.P. English and Fr. Murphy – and I don’t doubt that this is true.
I will say this, though: I have a friend whose tastes I trust who not only loves the second book but also told me that the second book made her like the first book even more than she already did. I consider this a high recommendation, so I will certainly read the second book before too much time passes – if only because I want to read the third installment when it comes out in August, in Postcards from Purgatory’s continuing coverage of 2014: The Summer Where Fantasy Trilogies and Series Go to Die.