Beyond Harry, Oz, and Narnia: Lev Grossman’s The Magicians

When Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians first came out in summer 2009, I read a plot summary and scoffed. A young man gets tapped for having magical abilities and ends up at an elite boarding school where they teach him wizardry (though that specific term does not show up in the book). Sound familiar? Not only did I have zero interest in reading it, I actually felt surprised that Grossman—the Time book critic—could have gotten away with publishing such a Rowling rip-off. I was wrong. But I wouldn’t say The Magicians is completely different from the Harry Potter series. There are many similarities, right down to specific plot devices and elements of the school, but Grossman gets by because he makes no secret of the influence. The characters in The Magicians fully acknowledge the existence of the Potter books, which, if anything, makes the realm of the novel feel all the more realistic. Its young people live in the same modern world (the protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is from Brooklyn) that we do. What happens to them, though certainly a farfetched fantasy, seems more plausible than any of the books that have preceded Grossman’s and from which he takes a great deal. Just like at Hogwarts, Brakebills (a magical college in this case, as opposed to a boarding school) has a grand dining hall, a series of loony professors, and a protection spell around its perimeter to keep out those pesky non-magical peeps. It even has its own version of Quidditch, a far more boring game called Welters, a kind of life-sized chess. Just like the Potter gang (Harry, Ron and Hermione), Grossman’s has the token smart girl (Alice, with whom Quentin starts an important and moving relationship) and an orphan (Eliot, who has been disowned by his parents and spends holiday breaks at school or with friends, like Harry does). The parallels continue. When an evil being invades a class, freezes time, and kills a girl, it’s hard not to think of a Harry Potter scene in which a girl almost dies after handling a bewitched necklace. In the magical land of Fillory—which occupies the second half of the novel—a scene with a stag drinking at the edge of a lake bears close resemblance to the stag that represents Harry’s Patronus animal. Yet all of this almost doesn’t matter, because what makes Grossman’s novel terrific and definitively fresh is its tone and style. His dialogue is edgy and captures the banter of angsty teens better than Britishisms like “Dunno, Ron” ever could. His scenes are bold (in a treehouse of sorts, peering up from under a trap door, Quentin spies his friend Eliot on his knees in front of another boy). And the most crucial set pieces are original and utterly engaging (two come to mind—a stretch in which the students become geese and fly to Antarctica, and another, while there, in which they become foxes and give in to base animal instincts). Then, of course, the difference that seems most touted in reviews of the novel: Quentin Coldwater is no Harry Potter. And that’s meant in the best way possible. He’s bitter, introverted, and lazy. He’s skeptical, untrusting, and unhappy. That sense of withdrawal has annoyed some reviewers (Michael Agger, in a mixed review in the Times, complains that the characters “mope about”), but to me, it’s far easier to buy a reticent hero just as confused by this world as we are than a bright-eyed superstar “boy who lived” that is truly the center of his universe. What’s alluring about Quentin is that within the magical world, he ain’t shit, and he learns that pretty quickly, and has to deal. The final fourth of the novel lost me a bit, with overdone action scenes and a clichéd quest to regain a crown and overcome a villain. This part of the book takes place in Fillory, which is a magical world (yes, an actual magical world, not just Quentin’s world of magic at Brakebills) that the gang has all read about in a series of books that they thought were fiction, but turned out to be real. This section of the novel hearkens back to Narnia (it is young children that first access Fillory, and their ram guide is a lot like Aslan) and Oz (Quentin and the gang must find that royal ram, and they pick up various friends along the way, and I kept thinking, “They’re off to see the Wizard”) far more than Hogwarts. But the romance between Quentin and Alice, and the biting humor in the dialogue (specifically that of Eliot and Josh) saves the book from eleventh-hour collapse. The novel is also surprisingly emotional. When Quentin and Alice finally get physical, it’s as foxes, and they’re not completely sure what they’re doing. The scene is inventive and sexy: “He locked his teeth in the thick fur of her neck… Something crazy and urgent was going on, and there was no way to stop it, or probably there was but why would you?” And when Quentin completes a ravaging physical challenge that many of his friends did not even attempt, his professor wraps him up in a bear hug and says, "Good man. Good man. You made it. You are going home.” I was almost in tears. The Magicians has been called “Harry Potter for adults,” and in many reviews that label has been eschewed as an oversimplification. It is, but it’s not that erroneous of a summary. The Magicians and the setting of Brakebills is a mature, brutally honest version of Rowling’s Hogwarts. For me at least, the Harry Potter books are receding into the past and my childhood, and Grossman’s version is the fantasy that the 2000s—in all of their political, economic, and interpersonal disillusionment—deserve. I’ll eagerly await the sequel.

Some Answers after The Ask from Sam Lipsyte

On a Saturday night in April, Sam Lipsyte is at KGB Bar in Manhattan, reading from his new novel The Ask, which everyone from book critics to blogosphere lit nerds have heaped with praise in the eight short weeks since its publication. Each time Lipsyte mentions the character named Vargina, the crowd erupts with cackles and guffaws. Fast forward to the present. Exactly six months after the release of The Ask, sales are strong, it sits proudly on featured tables in bookstores, and every lit nerd that you know is raving about it. They—and everyone else gaga over The Ask—fall for the novel’s voice in a matter of sentences. That voice comes from the narrator and protagonist of The Ask, Milo Burke, and many have confused this entertaining font of rage for Lipsyte himself. Lipsyte is a far cry from his antihero, but that’s why they call it fiction. And this time, Lipsyte’s fiction has catapulted him to a height of fame and success that he had never reached before, though his longtime readers insist the talent was always there, waiting to get noticed. Milo is an angry fuckup who is disillusioned with the arts fundraising department of the New York college (he calls it “Mediocre University”) at which he works and, by the end of the first chapter, has already proven it by giving one spoiled arts brat a verbal beating that Milo tells us “there is no point in repeating.” The onslaught gets him fired, though he is soon given a second chance dependent on his success with the “ask,” which is business lingo for a rich donor. The big ask turns out to be an old college friend, now turned wealthy sleaze, named Purdy Stuart. Milo must wring Purdy dry for a huge donation to the Mediocre U. arts program. Poor Milo—and the reader, along for the calamitous ride—spends the rest of the book leaping through hoops for the potential donor. Milo speaks in a furious invective that is somehow as endearing as it is caustic and vulgar. His lexicon is the resentful vocabulary of a failure—one with a hilariously dirty mouth. On the page, it reads like a personal screed, angrily dictated into a recorder. When read aloud, it’s even more effective. People at his readings listen with devilish grins, like they’re being naughty, indulging in a bit of shared misbehavior. Lipsyte reads from The Ask in a different voice from his own, loud and declarative, imitating the different voices perfectly. With each raucous sentence, tangled in swear words and name-calling, Lipsyte brings his character to life, and readers form a real relationship with Milo. Milo’s creator is different. He’s calm, collected, and friendly. He converses in a soft, earnest tone. He makes direct eye contact and holds it. He’s an easy, fuzzy presence. But in congratulating his newest work—caught up in their love for its protagonist—reviewers seem to have taken Milo as a direct surrogate for Lipsyte himself. “Yeah, some people seem to think I’m Milo,” says Lipsyte with gentle reproach but no sign of frustration. “A lot of people thought I was the guy in the last book, too. And they thought I was the guy in some of the short stories.” A review of The Ask by Jennifer Schuessler in the New York Review of Books garnered particular frustration from Lipsyte’s literary peers. Schuessler calls Lipsyte the “poet laureate of overeducated American loserdom.” Similarly, a New York Magazine profile begins by encouraging “you schmoes of America” and “sad sacks in sweaters” (those with “rampant neck beard[s]”) to, “rally ‘round your bard!” The tone of pieces like this suggests a presumption that Lipsyte is one of the very men about whom he writes—that his characters are all slightly altered stand-ins for Sam Lipsyte. “As far as some reviewers are concerned,” says Alex Abramovich, one of Lipsyte’s best friends, “Sam is modeling each character after his life. And that’s a stupid conclusion.” Abramovich and his friends welcomed Lipsyte into their circle with open arms, and are, in a sense, the reason he moved to Astoria. Lipsyte is a large man, a bit soft around the edges, but he doesn’t seem out of shape. As it turns out, he was a star shot-putter in high school. “Look,” Abramovich sums up, “the main difference between Sam and all of his characters is that Sam has never been a loser at anything he’s ever done in his life. Have you read his sentences? He’s clearly one of God’s winners on this earth. He’s just too fucking charming to be a loser.” To be fair, there are surface similarities between Lipsyte and his character. Both men are Jewish. And the “Jewish question,” as it turns out, hits a nerve for Lipsyte in curious ways. “I’m not observant at all, but I think about being a Jew all the time,” says Lipsyte. “And I write characters that have a similar condition.” Indeed, The Ask isn’t really a Jewish novel, but there are, throughout its pages, tinges of the Jewish experience. For one thing, Milo routinely kvetches over his decision to not have his son circumcised. Meanwhile, his son, Bernie, has his own obsession—more age-appropriate—with the extra tubing. “Do superheroes have foreskins?” he asks his dad. “Does Goliath have a foreskin?” Lipsyte, as is his talent, turns a meaningful family moment into comedy just in time: “Not for long,” Milo answers. “Not when David’s done with him.” When Bernie asks who David is, Milo tells him, “A foreskin collector.” But apart from these brief mentions—allusions to Milo’s inner Jew—the character does not outwardly act like one of the tribe, and Lipsyte isn’t interested in writing a Jewish novel. “It was done,” he declares. “There was a whole generation that dealt with that. I’m not going to say, Oh, I’m Jewish and people really like books about Jewish stuff, so I should write something that has to do with Jewish stuff. That’s not really going to get you anywhere.” Nevertheless, there are those who see deeply entrenched Jewish themes in Lipsyte’s work. Once, a decade ago, a friend of his ended up on a panel for some sort of Jewish literary prize. Lipsyte’s book of short stories, Venus Drive, was nominated, and according to his friend, one of the panelists said during a discussion, “Why are we even considering this one? There’s barely any Judaism in it.” Lipsyte’s friend responded: “Are you kidding me? It’s like the most Jewish thing I’ve ever read.” Another link between Lipsyte and Milo: they both have five-year-old sons. In The Ask, Milo says of his kid: “Bernie was a beautiful boy. Good thing, too, as he’d become an expensive hobby. Preschool, preclothing for the preschool. Then there were the hidden costs, like food.” When this line is read aloud to Lipsyte, even he can’t help but laugh. Yeah, he wrote it, but it’s damn funny. Yet suddenly, he gets very serious and says, “I think Milo also deeply loves his son.” When the progressive, hippie-taught “school” that Bernie attends shuts down and Milo must spend entire days with Bernie, his fatherly love does shine through. Lipsyte has fond memories of walking through Astoria with his own son, early inspiration for scenes in which Milo strolls through Queens with Bernie, chiding him to stop playing with trash from the street. Lipsyte says that someone once asked him if having kids would change his writing. “Well, I hope so,” he told the guy. “It would be kind of weird if it didn’t.” He chuckles, remembering this. Abramovich feels that Lipsyte’s affability is a main cause of his friend’s newfound mega success. “Sam had a huge log built up of people who adore him,” he says. “He’s just the warmest, most generous and likeable person. And this isn’t boilerplate bullshit; this is true. One thing is that he never says ‘no’ to anyone. But another is that he’s really doing the work.” Commitment is what the young writer Tao Lin, who has done readings with Lipsyte, also points to. “Everyone I know feels that he really ‘went for it’ with this book,” Lin wrote over Google chat in May. “Which explains the ‘mad coverage’ it’s getting.” Lipsyte has earned a stellar reputation among other writers, even if it took reviewers longer to hop on board. On the evening he read at KGB, the author John Wray, who has been lauded for Lowboy, read before him. Wray announced, “I was going to read from Lowboy until I realized I’d be reading with Sam Lipsyte, and well, he’s very funny. So I’m going to read something a little goofier, with aspirations toward comedy.” His offering wasn’t nearly as funny as what Lipsyte read, but it was a valiant attempt. Lipsyte acknowledges the connections he has to Milo. “I think we have many selves and there may be a version of me inside that sort of has the same thoughts as him,” he says about his crude hero. “I don’t necessarily wallow in the bitterness, but his way of looking at the world isn’t alien to me. I think he’s often pretty clear-sighted.” Then, inevitably, he teases himself: “Maybe I’m just making up friends for me to have.” But the happy truth is that he doesn’t need to make up friends anymore. For most of his career, he struggled to get noticed. Although The New York Times reviewed all of his books, the consensus is that he was still under the radar, though Lipsyte responds playfully, “I always wonder where the radar is located, ya know?” Finally, with The Ask, Lipsyte has struck a chord. And people aren’t just praising the book, they’re interested in him as well; twelve major magazines interviewed Lipsyte in March and April. Ever humble, he tries to deny an increase in press. “I’ve always had great response from the people whose opinions I’ve cared about,” he insists. “So in my mind, my work was getting noticed.” Soon enough, though, he folds: “Okay, I've gotten more mainstream recognition for this book than my others combined. It's been a leap in coverage and conversation.” What excited Lipsyte the most in post-Ask coverage of him has been the fact that in a People magazine feature on which books celebrities are reading, Michael J. Fox mentioned The Ask. Fox said he was enjoying it. “I grew up watching Family Ties, so to see 20-something years later that Michael J. Fox is reading the book, well, I think I can retire now.” Lipsyte is positively giddy when he says this. Why did The Ask finally earn him such success? Why not his novels Home Land or The Subject Steve, or his collection of short stories, Venus Drive? “The Ask might be different [from his past work] in that there's a family at the core of it, a family that's come apart,” speculates Ben Marcus, a colleague and friend of Lipsyte’s in Columbia’s Creative Writing department. “Perhaps that draws more people in, feels more universal.” Lipsyte himself is more hard-pressed to wonder about the winning combination. “I think that what happened with this book is that I’ve been working for 15 years, and building something of a readership, and good will among some critics, and I benefited from that,” he guesses. “And the rest is sort of timing.” In a period of economic stress, political strife, and general apathy, The Ask nails the current malaise, and not in a preachy, tiresome way. It handles the issues that are bugging everyone by acknowledging just that—they’re bugging us. In the case of Milo Burke, they’re pissing him off. Yet if Milo were just pissed off, he’d be a more grating, whiny character. Instead, his anger is conveyed with humor. “Sam’s humor isn’t sitcom humor,” says Abramovich. “You don’t come up with some wacky situation. His humor is gnarly syntax and juxtapositions, and that’s a hard sell. I think it’s a happy miracle that he’s gotten as far as he has.” Whether it’s the family focus, his many years’ worth of strong relationships, or the humor that is to thank, Lipsyte’s number has been called at last. What has emerged is a writer who cares about fiction, in a literary climate that continually seems to cast it aside. Lipsyte read Reality Hunger—perhaps the year’s most discussed nonfiction release, in which David Shields suggests shattering labels like “memoir” or “novel” and simply calling everything a “book”—but Lipsyte is not concerned about the future of the novel. “There’s this constant debate about the novel. Is it dead, has technology rendered it dead, but the novel is a technology,” says Lipsyte. “What the novel can still do that other outlets can’t do is operate on a certain level of language and consciousness and association. There’s so much to do there, and there are still so many possibilities.” Sam Lipsyte, then, is less ordinary than he seems at first glance. He takes language and twists it, tortures it. He makes you laugh until it hurts and makes you nearly cry, often in the same paragraph that a few sentences earlier had offended you, outraged you. He isn’t sure which other contemporary writers are writing the same kind of books. “I’m in a tradition,” he says with a furrowed brow, “but I don’t know who else I belong with right now. Maybe I’m the beginning of a new trend.” Whether or not it’s a new trend, Lipsyte is doing something new, bringing something fresh and valuable to the literary table—something seriously funny. And his next work, a book of short stories for FSG, will almost certainly be welcomed with rave reviews. Correction: Originally, this piece incorrectly stated that Lipsyte had once worked at the New Yorker, and that he was half-Jewish. Those statements have been corrected. We apologize for the error. [Image credit: Ceridwen Morris]

Old Tricks (Finally) Come Together: A Review of Paul Auster’s Invisible

It’s always difficult to play the sheepish part of the converted hater. The novels of Paul Auster blend into one another. The same tropes emerge time and again, and after a few reads, the inevitable attitude becomes, “Okay, pal, I get it, I get it.” Every time there’s a new Auster novel out, I think it may be different, and I give him a chance, and soon find I’m back in the usual territory: identity puzzles, murky timelines, ominous danger. And I’ve given the guy so many chances. The New York Trilogy was taut and thrilling, and seems to be Auster’s most lauded work to date, but the novellas are so terse in language that I often felt frustrated, wanting more. Granted, this is coming from a reader who champions maximalists like Wallace and Vollmann, but I’ve also liked the spare prose of writers like Coetzee. There’s just something missing for me in the Trilogy, a sort of isolative quality. I gave it another shot with The Brooklyn Follies, and enjoyed myself more. Of course, it isn’t by any means a perfect book (Walter Kirn, he of Up in the Air fame, called it an “amateurish novel”). I found elements in it that I’d later come to recognize as the tired techniques to which Auster returns in nearly every outing. The narrator is old and busted, and begins the story by telling us, morosely, that he moved to Brooklyn to die. His name is Nathan Glass (get it, glass? Auster can’t refrain from name-dropping his own book, City of Glass, from The New York Trilogy). Glass is compiling anecdotes to write a book about human foolishness. Another predictable subplot involves an illegal caper that fails due to betrayal and greed. All that being said, the book is easy to get through—breezy and kind of pleasant. The second protagonist, Glass’ nephew Tom, is bumbling and likeable, easy to root for. I felt happy after finishing it—not bowled over, but amused. Timbuktu, my third Auster choice, shattered my good graces. The book is silly, even childish. He pulls off the dog-as-narrator feat, sure, but the thing is so short and flat it feels completely unnecessary. “Mr. Bones,” really? And his friend is a homeless guy named Willy G. Christmas? Oy. I couldn’t even feel charmed by what I can only imagine is an animal hero that Auster lovers adore. Instead, I was bored and annoyed. Sections are introduced with hokey phrases like, “Thus began an exemplary friendship between man and boy.” Characters speak like they’re on an episode of Leave it to Beaver. “We’ve just got to keep him, Mama,” a girl begs her mother when Mr. Bones shows up at their door. Sure, Auster is mocking such spoiled American Dream families, but overall, it more often feels like he is trading in clichés, rather than sending them up. It got worse from there. The book that would kill my interest for good (I thought) was Travels in the Scriptorium. It begins with an unnamed man, in an unnamed location, confused about—shocker, here—his identity (cue up Tony Soprano in his coma: “Who am I? Where am I going?”). Finally we get a name: Mr. Blank. The room is filled with post-its on objects: LAMP. DESK. It’s like a game of Clue. Did Mr. Blank kill his cousin, Mr. Doppelganger, in the ROOM with a RUSTY KNIFE? I finished the book in a few hours’ time and felt cheated. Paul Auster had become, for me, the literary equivalent of Weezer—an artist I respected and had once loved, but could no longer continue supporting and feel good about myself. That was where I stood when he came out with Invisible. I wouldn’t have picked it up if I hadn’t accidentally attended a reading of his in Manhattan just days after the book’s release. I had gone there with the roundabout purpose of meeting Rick Moody, who would be introducing him (you can read my full “report” on the experience here), but in so doing I had to stay for the reading. Auster strolled out confidently and launched into a vivid, unapologetic scene of incest between a biological brother and sister. He stepped on stage and belted it out, reading quickly and almost angrily. It was in second person narration so it felt, creepily, like he was telling you about the time you had sex with your sister. And boy, it was graphic. “As your sister gently put her hand around your rejuvenated penis (sublime transport, inexpressible joy), you forged on with your anatomy lesson,” he read. “When Gwyn came for the first time (rubbing her clitoris with the middle finger of her left hand), the sound of air surging in and out of her nostrils...” Oh my God. He didn’t even make some self-deprecating joke after finishing, the way you’d expect an author to do (something to lighten the mood, perhaps, like “Well, hope that wasn’t too awkward!”). Instead, he shut the book dramatically and walked off the stage. Such a move was fitting of the work. Invisible is not funny. And sure, Auster isn’t especially known to be a funny writer, but there is a fair wealth of light humor in Brooklyn Follies (albeit not always adult humor—a page-long fart joke comes to mind). Invisible has no interest in that territory; it’s a very serious story. It is also a terrific read. It’s different from his others—or at least, it’s a better presentation of those same tricks. Clancy Martin, in his Times review of the book, nails it: "As soon as you finish... you want to read it again." Our protagonist is Adam Walker, who is likable in a very ordinary, easy way. He's a student at Columbia, works in the school library (Auster calls it the “Castle of Yawns”), nurses a wound from an old family tragedy—a typical character. Where the book shines is in its narrative structure. It’s divided into four different sections, with three different narrators. The passing of time is gorgeously handled. The first section, told in the first-person, provides the bulk of the narrative at Columbia in 1967 and covers Adam's friendship and conflict with Rudolph Born, the story’s cartoonish villain. In the second section, which begins in 2007, an old friend of Adam's (an author and clear Auster stand-in) receives a manuscript, which provides the content of the section—it's Adam's patchy attempt at a memoir, and it tells the story of Adam’s history with his sister, before he ever met Born. It’s written entirely in the second person. In the third section, the friend, James, has received the second half of Adam’s manuscript, which now brings us back to 1967 and describes Adam’s time in Paris, in traditional third person narration. During this section Adam spends most of his time with two women. Neither is as important as the book’s central female figure, his sister Gwyn, but one of the two, Celine, is the young daughter of a woman Born is set to marry. Adam befriends the girl, but they have a falling out and he leaves Paris. In the final section, we are back in the present of 2007, with James as he tracks down Gwyn and then Celine. The section ends, of all things, with a series of entries from Celine’s journal, describing a spontaneous, strange trip she took as a grown woman to visit Born, her would-be father-in-law. She flies to see Born at his remote, Moreau-like island home, and, as they say, hilarity ensues. By hilarity, I mean the Auster variety: surprising dramatic tension that can be darkly funny, but is really quite serious and usually not funny at all. The different narrators provide fresh voices and insights, and the shifting narrative style (first, second, and third person are all used) keeps us intrigued. Yet the tone of each section is never so radical as to feel jarring. Everything flows and fits nicely to create a reading experience that is exciting, but also simple. This ain't Melville, but obviously it isn't Stieg Larsson, either. Even though Auster has churned out some duds, he has the ability to write simply and intelligently, and he really knows how to move a plot along. He might be the least technically challenging writer of those revered by the high literary establishment, but nonetheless, he has always been perceived as part of it. Invisible has its flaws. It has its fair share of Austerian (can I coin that phrase right here and now?) language—overt, tactless, groan-inducing. After Adam first meets Rudolph Born at a party, he is hesitant to get to know him more, and reflects to himself, “There is much to be explored in this hesitation, I believe, for it seems to suggest that I already understood… that allowing myself to get involved with him could possibly lead to trouble.” Oh, gee, okay. I suppose if this were a fifth-grade exercise the teacher would circle that and use it to define foreshadowing. Above all else, the "bad guy" at the center of its plot, Born, is something of a joke. He spouts off cheesy idioms like a movie character (“your ass will be so cooked," he threatens at one point, and at another, warns, "not a word, young Walker, not a word"). Recently, a nice piece on The Millions that discussed the influence of Shakespeare’s Iago on modern fiction did not mention Born, which seemed to me a surprising omission at first. But in fact, it’s only natural that Born wouldn’t come to mind in a discussion that includes characters like Barbara from Notes on a Scandal or American Psycho’s Pat Bateman. Rudolph Born just isn’t the cool, calculating emotional menace that other great villains have been. But poor dialogue and a one-dimensional “bad guy” do nothing to ruin the novel. No one reads Auster to find beautiful prose, and Born’s role as a thorn in Adam’s side, though a bit contrived, is necessary. The book’s final scene castrates his power, anyway. Born isn’t even the biggest obstacle to Adam’s happiness. That title belongs to Gwyn. It is their volatile sibling relationship that makes Invisible a compelling story, and leaves its troubling questions still lingering after you’ve put the book down. Auster’s next novel, already up on Amazon for all to see, is called Sunset Park­; it’s another New York story. According to a Booklist plot synopsis: “four flat-broke twentysomething searchers end up squatting in a funky abandoned house in Sunset Park.” Characters include such stock types as a guitarist, a struggling artist, and a grad student, as well as a fugitive “poisoned by guilt over his stepbrother's death.” Another character plagued by a tragic event in his past? Uh-oh. This one could go either way; it may be standard genre fare, or perhaps it’s something new and exciting. After Invisible, I’m at least willing to give it a shot. I guess I’m back on the Paul Auster bandwagon, for now.