Halfway Through Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This is one of the dreariest books ever written. It is all the annoying stuff about contemporary mainstream literary fiction, distilled into some kind of bizarre wonder-hating fanfic of children’s fantasy literature. I borrowed it out from the library on my Kindle, and thank God I didn’t spend any money on it.

First of all, the main character is a neurotic guy with issues that makes most of us with neurotic childhoods look sane. He’s also supposed to be one of those grind kids who doesn’t actually enjoy schoolwork or intelligence or knowledge, or indeed much of anything. But he’s much worse than any grind kid ever was. I’ve known a lot of smart people and a lot of smart unhappy people, and even suicidally depressed people, but this is ridiculous. He doesn’t get much better through the course of the first half of the book. He’s supposed to have some fun hobbies, eventually, but you never get to have any fun with him.

The stupidest moment is when he suddenly goes all competitive about being a “type A test-taker.” Seriously? I was in all kinds of top percentiles in those standardized test things, and it was either fun or obligatory, but it surely wasn’t competitive, unless you mean racing the clock. Test-taking is a skill or a knack, and you just do it. Getting excited or determined doesn’t help. Maybe some people have the illusion that it helps. (Now, I can see a Type A personality kicking in during test preparation and studying. But at the test??!?)

Second, every relationship in this book is seriously messed up. You will have about ten pages of fun with these people (at least in the first half of the book). Everything they do that should be fun is dreary instead. There’s plenty of pointless and unexciting sex, which I guess is included just to prove that it’s not kiddy lit, and some pointless abuse of characters by other characters.

Third, at least in the first half of the book, the characters just experience things that are done to them, or stay silent about stuff they should question, or suffer dumbly while feeling like idiots. There are no plots and plans by the characters, except perhaps offscreen.

Fourth, it is unlikely that the author lives next door to you, so you can’t ceremonially torch his book on his doorstep. So again, it’s a good thing I borrowed this boring thing from the library. But a mini-bonfire would be fitting, because this guy obviously has the ability to write an interesting book about interesting people, and has chosen to torture his faithful readers instead. (Much as some of his characters choose to do to their friends, in fact.)

I don’t really care about these people or the plot, so I think I’m giving up on this book. I’m not a masochist.

What really kills me is how many good reviews this steppe-like expanse of wasted time has gotten. I know he’s a Time book reviewer, and I’m not surprised that he gets good reviews from his friends and those who share his tastes. But what on earth got into the rest of these people? Especially since they mostly read more slowly than I, and thus must have wasted weeks and months on this dried dung?

UPDATE: This brilliant reviewer agrees: “Quentin is my worst nightmare coming to haunt me: he is Holden Caulfield all over again.” And here’s another eloquent review.

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