There may be spoilers.
I mentioned ages ago that I had thoughts to share about Lev Grossman’s book “The Magicians”. These are some of them! I’ve only finished the first half of the story, and I haven’t felt just-right to start the second half yet so when I say “The Magicians”, I mean “book one of The Magicians”. I can do this because the book is separated into books I and II, and that’s just a little bit silly. It works, but because it works, so does discussing only the first ‘book’ of the book.
The first time I realised that The Magicians was reminding me of My Immortal, was when the main female character’s breasts were mentioned. They were described in a way that gave me the impression that they were sizeable, which I hadn’t expected. “Oh”, my brain said, “like B’loody Mary, she has big bobs“.
The glass cracked, and I figured out what that nagging feeling had been, in the back of my mind. It was the ‘create your own avatar: Gothick edition’ banner ad mental image I had for her. Her name is Alice.
I cannot BELIEVE that as soon as I need to screencap those bloody “make your 3d avatar!” sidebar banner ads with the relevant character designs in are NOWHERE TO BE FOUND. You know the ones I mean? I think that Vampires vs Lycans had some similar ones a while back too, but I mean the IMVU generic “goths”, all striped socks and buckled corsets on fug ’3d’ avatars trying to show you their cleavage and asking you to come and chat down the side of a page while you’re just quietly trying to watch a film review. Imagine this:
dressed as this:
I’m not saying this as a criticism of The Magicians. It’s actually something I like and find both enriching and interesting. She’s not written to be “gottik”; Grossman’s Alice doesn’t sleep in a coffin or wear MCR shoes or glamourise self-harm, molestation or addiction.
As described by the narration, she’s thin, and she has long straight black hair. I think maybe she has a pale face? We see her from afar and through the male protagonist’s gaze long before we (or he) really meet her, as a person. We always see her in relation to him. He takes her in: she’s shy, introverted, painfully talented, intensely sensitive, full of secret inner pain.. we’re not ever allowed to forget that she’s female (Quentin has a lot of mental erections).
“Bonus points if she has long dark hair that hides her eyes.”, says TV Tropes on the matter of “shrinking violets”
“Im good at too many things! WHY CAN’T I JUST BE NORMAL? IT’S A FUCKING CURSE!”, said Ebony.
I’m.. pretty sure that Alice has violet eyes? Did I make that up? I have memories of excitedly telling my beloved about how she had violet eyes omglulz. Either that is the case, or I was reminded so strongly of the Ebony DDRW school of character design that my brain convinced itself. Like John Green invented the tale of the poopy nintendo.
She’s called Alice – Alice is the name of the girl who went down the rabbit hole, who was followed by all the alternative whimsical teenagers looking for a get-out, who was re-imagined (with that long straight dark hair) by American McGee and enchanted the kids and the young adults and the goths all over again.
I swear I didn’t do this on purpose, that it just happened without my noticing; every time I looked at Alice in a scene in my mind, she had red streaks in her hair. That is not written canon. That’s My Immortal and every other sparkly part-unicorn niece of Snape who transferred to Hogwarts from New York, encroaching on my headspace. Enoby’s are “icy blue eyes like limpid tears”.
Alice is a Mary Sue-style (-style) construct of “hot alternative deep damaged girl”, which is TOTALLY PERFECT AND AWESOME for the book that she is in, the protagonist that she is a satellite character for, and the joyful meta that is the ouroboros ‘point’ of the writing. Because then on top of this trope-shell she is made real and not annoying and I don’t want to stab her. Oh, what, I can’t have issues with ‘idealised romantic partner’ tropes/tropes that remind me of me when I was not enjoying me? I can, and I can talk about stabbing them, because they aren’t real.
I’ll note that she’s not written with the sheen of “girls being afraid is sexy”; it’s the “if only I could reach whatever brilliance the fear hides” finish. She’s special like Ebony, not Hinata*.
The Magicians is (on one level; you – OK, I.. I’m not smart enough (APPARENTLY) to do magic and I’m not smart enough to say everything I want to about this stupid asshole book either – can’t talk about the whole book all at once) an experiment in “what if all these tropes we really truly love were really real, like, actually real in that “realistic fiction” way, and specifically subject to all the shitty behaviours and politics and guilt that mark being inside your own head during ‘modern life’, instead of largely being metaphors (though also still being metaphors, obviously), what would that be like?”. Of course that needs to involve taking Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way’s soul-sister and making her an actual complex human girl. That’s the right decision!
The Magicians (partly) is about examining what fiction, and head-fanfiction, does to and says about us. It manages to look at the main character and narrator Quentin’s nostalgia for reading not-Narnia at the same time as saying “so what if you weren’t really a Harry Potter fan but then you got your Hogwarts letter only it was a University acceptance instead, how would THAT go”, and then it puts another layer over the top and says “so OK, magic school is real for you but you still ‘believe’ in stories in the way that children believe in stories” and THEN “so OK maybe not-Narnia is real after all too, maybe?”
SO MANY LAYERS AAAAHHHH delicious brain-candy. Harry Potter is referenced by name, because this book is set in “our world”, but that fictionalised “our world’”s not-Narnia books aren’t called Narnia, and when described are allusion-versions. Called Fillory. Different adventures, but ones that taste exactly right.
But, but I find this all exemplified in and easiest to talk about in terms of Alice vs Enoby. At least I think I do. I’ll have to try.
So we have this thin, large-breasted girl who’s not into hanging out with all the normal people, long straight black hair, secret pain, she’s so deep, so smart, such a prodigy, and surely only needs that one equally as deep-smart fabulous boy to reach out to her.. and then they could have great sex (spoilers!) and feel a bit of hope about the world.. for a time. *tragic pose*
I actually don’t know if it all goes wrong, like I said I’ve only read “book one” i.e. half the full story, BUT I can usually tell doomy foreshadowing when I read it, I think? Even though I am not smart enough to do magic, according to this book. That just makes me cross. I’m sure you understand.
And we have this story set in magic school, that the author wrote because they (intellectually or intuitively) understand how transcendent and comforting ‘suddenly in magical world at time of important formative life changes’ fiction can be.
And we have this re-imagining of magic-school books with more explicitly dark and sexual themes.
In these ways, The Magicians and My Immortal are the same. Ways that seem even more interesting to me when I compare them. In the ways that they play out, don’t worry! They’re very different. The Magicians is quite admirably realised, whereas My Immortal features repeat chapters and “Morty McFly” (I love it). No, I really do have a great fondness for My Immortal. It’s a certain kind of honest, even if it is secretly really trollfic. It’s not just famous because it’s absurd, it’s famous because it somehow manages to be so widely archetypal.
I know you can say “blah blah blah minor similarity all the world of fiction to choose from, using tv-tropes means you can always find something to compare between stories blaahhhh”.
But I really think that this is a valid comparison, ‘academically’.
Two stories, seeded from existential angst, grown in the soil of traditional british children’s fiction read by Americans, featuring this pitch-perfect batty teenaged ideal of a she-person.. one’s written by either the greatest, most artful troll ever or is badfic by a teenaged girl just spewing out all her raw hormonal teenage clawing self-regarding passion and completely throwing the story overboard in favour of the (misguided) search for personal gratification, the other’s ~literary fiction~ by a celebrated adult author that examines young adult emotional states and choices with precision and a delicate touch, and twines the story around every aspect of the book so it’s inescapable and taut. They’re through the looking glass from each other. But they are reflections.
Let’s quote TV Tropes on My Immortal for a second:
Assuming it’s a parody, it may be a hugely brilliant Take That at self-righteously “unconventional” teenagers who look down on anyone they regard as “mainstream” despite the fact that they themselves are still conforming, only to a different group. Ebony is this sort of snobbery taken Up To Eleven, to the point where she can only see the world in terms of “goffs” and “preps”. In her world, “goffiness” is the only quality which human beings can be judged by and anyone who fails to meet her standards is a “prep” by default. And, of course, all the “goff” stuff she likes is actually pretty mainstream, just less obviously “preppy”, emphasising her hypocrisy.
I don’t mind, and I don’t think it matters, if My Immortal is a troll-parody or a real fic.
In The Magicians, Quentin and Alice between them have: three friends, one left-behind friend, one enemy, one love interest turned liability, and three or four named acquaintances (one of whom dies). In the whole world. They’re different; they’re too smart for society, they’re so smart they’re magic. They’re two out of three best students in their year, and they’re the only two in said year to join the super-elite mysterious “physical magic” group (instead of Houses we have people grouped by personal magic-skill theme; “physical” basically means “other” and there are only five of them in this group for the majority of the time Quentin and Alice spend in all of university). They aren’t good socialisers. Quentin is a dork, and superior, and frustrated; Alice is shy and hurting and quiet and too perceptive-slash-suspicious to let people in easily. They are exactly like Enoby and Vampire Potter, or Draco, or whoever. This is not celebrated: magical people in this world (at least the ones we see) have crap limbo-lives or endless juvenilia. They can do ANYTHING, so most of them seem to end up doing basically nothing, just.. stagnating. Screwing up their personal relationships, going crazy in their own small-focus hobbies, having nothing in common with ANYONE WHO ISN’T MAGIC. Anyone at all – even Quentin’s own parents just drift away, though you’re given the impression they were never totally connected. But he doesn’t react, he just watches, and leaves early.
The Magicians live in a society apart because they literally can’t relate to (this book doesn’t call them this) muggles – not because of treaties, cultural differences and safety precautions a la Rowling. You have to be a certifiable genius to be a magic user, and on top of that you just have to (magically) be magic – the characters genuinely are “more special” than everyone else, but that doesn’t get them anything. They’d probably be happier if they weren’t. They don’t enjoy it or look forward to it. They don’t go anywhere with it or make connections or changes. They barely even acknowledge it as being different to what ‘most people’ have to deal with, because they are that mentally detached from the rest of humanity that it doesn’t seem to occur to them that there could be any comparison. It’s not a happy chosen isolation, it’s a resigned one.
Two polar opposite approaches to elitism and snobbery, in these stories that start so similarly and run along the same themes. Which would you rather? Neither? Me too.
“Tara Gilesbie”, whoever that may be, writes from a juvenile POV. Lev Grossman writes from an adult one. They both write about magical people on the technical fence between ‘juvenile’ and ‘adult’. I like a mixture and a balance. So I like both.
Relevant: Amaaaaaziiiiing cosplaaaay
I’ve written about Grossman’s other book, Codex, here
*Don’t even try; having problems with Hinata is my Waterloo.