Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

(Book Review)

Why I Read This Book

Although I keep trying to steer myself towards more serious books, I have a certain weakness for fantasy, a- childish- indulgence which I never fully outgrew. And so despite my efforts to grow up, every so - often -I- find- myself- drifting- back- to- pure - escapist - fantasy-books.

The past few weeks I’ve found myself getting into the same old boring routine. (It can happen, even when you’re living abroad.) There were many other more serious history books I was supposed to be making myself read, but since I had gotten bored and wasn’t making any progress on any of them, I decided to try and seek some escape in fantasy.
(It’s somewhat ironic that I picked this book up precisely for those reasons, since one of the major themes of the book is people using fantasy literature to escape from the dullness of everyday life.)

This book had been on my radar for a couple years or so now ever since I read a number of very glowing reviews about it online. In particular, I was impressed by how much praise the AV Club gave to this book [SEE THEIR REVIEW HERE] but other online publications like also praised it quite highly [SEE HERE].

I was vaguely familiar with the author Lev Grossman. He writes for Time Magazine, and I used to have a subscription. Lev Grossman is a huge geek, which is great because so am I, and huge geeks often make great reviewers.
Most infamously Lev Grossman was the one responsible for sticking the comic book The Watchmen on Times list of the 100 greatest novels a few years back (W). It’s a move I would personally disagree with this (Watchmen does a great job of deconstructing comic book superheroes, but at the end of the day its appeal is limited to only people with an interest in a very narrow genre), but I still admire a fellow geek move when I see one.

However Fanboys don’t always make great authors. (Fanboy fiction tends to be highly derivative). And I was slightly apprehensive about what kind of story teller Grossman would make. But I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The Review

If you haven’t encountered this book before, here’s the basic premise: The first half of the book is a take off on Harry Potter, the second half of the book is a take off on the Chronicles of Narnia.

Grossman is taking fantasy stories that we are already familiar with, but trying to retell them with a more pessimistic view of human nature. (I’m sure it’s no coincidence this book is written by a huge Watchmen fan.)

It’s an interesting idea. But in my opinion it fails in the execution.

The challenge in writing a book like this is to bring in enough fresh ideas to justify retelling these familiar stories.
Before he even gets to these twists, Grossman needs to spend a lot of time just recreating a setting analogous to Harry Potter, and a world analogous Narnia. This is very tiresome for the reader because we already know these stories. Once all this boring set-up work is done, Grossman can begin to play with these worlds and take them in new directions. But by this point the reader’s patience is beginning to wear thin, and that can put a lot of pressure on the last 3rd of the book to be more spectacular than it is.

In my opinion, the small twists Lev Grossman puts on the Harry Potter story does not justify 200 pages of retreaded material.

So much of this book is similar to Harry Potter. Which is intentional, I know. Grossman is deliberately trying to recreate the world of Harry Potter so he can add in his twists, I get it. But as I kept reading, I kept waiting for the big twists to come, and I kept getting disappointed.

Just like Harry Potter, the main character comes from a family where he’s largely ignored and unhappy at home (albeit not as extreme as in Harry’s case, but same idea.) Just like Harry Potter, through magical means he is taken to a mysterious magical school for magicians.

In his blurb for this book [LINK HERE], Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin writes, “Hogwarts was never like this.”

Actually, Hogwarts was a lot like this. Brakebills, the substitute Hogwarts school in this book, is clearly modeled on Hogwarts. Despite being located in upstate New York, the school is described as being Anglophone in style, which is meant to explain away all the carry-overs from J.K. Rowling’s books. Students board at the school, and eat together in magical communal dining halls. Prefects are appointed among the student body to help keep order.
The school grounds have all sorts of mysterious magical anomalies just like the campus at Hogwarts, but while all the changing staircases and talking portraits seemed new and fresh when reading about Hogwarts, it seemed boring, stale and derivative when reading about the magical campus of Brakebills.

The faculty at Brakebills are an eccentric bunch, similar to the faculty at Hogwarts. Although all of the professors help the students in the end, some of them seem to take pleasure in tormenting the students as well (not unlike Snape from the Harry Potter series.) Just like in Harry Potter, the faculty will often refuse to be direct with the students, and instead hint at things in cryptic manners.

Instead of being divided up into houses, the students are divided into academic disciplines, but these function pretty much the same way as the houses in Hogwarts. Just as in Hogwarts, the students don’t choose their groups, but their groups are chosen for them, in this case after a series of magical tests. The disciplines compete against each other in the magical game welters, a take off on quidditch .
The main character Quentin shares several similarities with Harry Potter. Although his home life is not as abusive as Harry’s, he does come from a home where he is largely ignored and relatively unhappy, and when the chance comes he desperately seizes onto this magical school as a way out of his previous life.
He’s not “the chosen one” in the same way Harry is, but he shows signs of being special. He’s one of two students to be allowed to skip a year at school, and the school faculty have trouble assigning him a discipline because he’s a special case.
Just as Harry entered the magical world as a complete naive, and had to be taught everything by his fellow students, so there are a couple passages which indicate that Quentin’s classmates somehow know much more about the magical world than he does, and (in passages that feel extremely repetitive of Harry Potter) they educate him about things like dragons or the game of welters while they simultaneous express amazement at his ignorance.
The other major character in this book, Alice, is very obviously similar to Hermione.

But more than that, the central premise behind the Harry Potter books was that magic was real, but it had to be meticulously studied at school in the same old boring way you learn chemistry or mathematics time table—the combination of the fantastical with the mundanity of school studies.

In passages I found very irritating, Lev Grossman spends a fair amount of time attempting to rekindle this same wonder at magical study for his own readers—As if nobody had ever read Harry Potter before and it was still a new concept.

This wasn’t Fillory [ed note: Fillory is Grossman’s stand in for Narnia]. In each of the Fillory novels one or two of the Chatwin children were always taken under the wing of a kindly Fillorian mentor who taught them a skill or a craft. In The World in the Walls Martin becomes a master horseman and Helen trains as a kind of forest scout; in The Flying Forest Rupert becomes a deadly archer; in A Secret Sea Fiona trains with a master fencer; and so on. The process of learning is a nonstop orgy of wonderment.
Learning magic was nothing like that. It turned out to be about as tedious as it was possible for the study of powerful and mysterious supernatural forces to be. The same way a verb has to agree with its subject, it turned out, even the simplest spell had to be modified and tweaked and inflected to agree with the time of day, the phase of the moon, the intention and purpose and precise circumstance of its casting, and a hundred other factors, all of which were tabulated in volumes of tables and charts and diagrams printed in microscopic jewel type on huge yellowing elephant-folio pages. And half of each page was taken up with footnotes listing the exceptions and irregularities and special cases, all of which had to be committed to memory, too. Magic was a lot wonkier than Quentin thought it would be.
(Page 55—one of several passages in the book detailing how hard it was to study magic.)

Several times while reading The Magicians I wanted to cry out, “I’ve already read this book. Oh come on! I’VE READ THIS BOOK ALREADY!”

In the later Harry Potter books, the tone gets a little bit darker. The happy carefree place of Hogwarts is invaded by dark magicians, and JK Rowling even goes as far as to kill off some of the teenage Hogwarts characters to heighten the drama.
Lev Grossman does the same thing in his book. (I’m not sure if this is supposed to be one of the “darker twists” his novel is advertised as adding, but it’s not. This is straight out of the Harry Potter playbook.)
JK Rowling never killed off a teenage character without first making us care about this person, and making the death seem meaningful.
Grossman, on the other hand, shamelessly, kills off a character that we barely know, who was introduced only a few pages beforehand, and who only exists in the novel for the purposes of being killed off. He then tries in the pages afterwards to extract some pathos from her death, but off course it completely falls flat because we never got to care about this character in the first place.

It’s always dangerous for a new novelist to force comparisons with a more established novelist. Grossman forces the reader to compare him to JK Rowling, and Grossman suffers from the comparison.

The Harry Potter series may have had its faults, but one of the great things about JK Rowling was the way she just got out of the way and let the characters talk. The characters in Harry Potter talked to each other a lot, and the character's personality didn’t have to be explicitly told to us by the narrator. Their personality just came out in the way they talked and what they did. As a consequence, I thought JK Rowling’s better characters, like Ron and Hermione, seemed incredibly like real people.
Other characters like Malfoy were a bit more one-dimensional, it’s true, but one-dimensional or not Malfoy could still pop off the page. You could picture in your head every snarl he made.

By contrast, the heavy hand of the narrator is very present in The Magicians. The characters get very little dialogue, and what little personality they do have often has to be just told directly by the narrator. In The Magicians, character personality is very likely to be delivered in passages like this:

Richard, of course, was the mysterious stranger who turned up with the other former Physical Kids on graduation day. He was a one-time Physical Kid, too, of the generation that preceded Eliot and Josh and Janet, and of them all he was the only one who had actually entered the world of respectable professional wizardry. Richard was tall, with a big head, dark hair, square shoulders, and a big square chin, and he was handsome in a Frankensteinian way. He was friendly enough to Quentin—firm handshake, lots of eye contact with his big, dark eyes. In conversation he liked to address Quentin directly as “Quentin” a lot, which made him feel kind of like they were having a job interview. Richard was employed by the trust that managed the collective financial assets of the magical community, which were vast. He was, in a quiet way, an observant Christian. They were rare among magicians.
Quentin tried to like Richard, since everybody else did, and it would just be simpler. But he was so damn earnest. He wasn’t stupid, but he completely lacked any sense of humor—jokes derailed him, so that the whole conversation had to stop while somebody, usually Janet, explained what everybody else was laughing at, and Richard knitted his thick Vulcan eyebrows in consternation at his companions’ merely human foibles. And Janet, who could usually be counted on to ruthlessly flense anybody who made the mistake of taking anything seriously, Janet waited on Richard hand and foot! It annoyed Quentin to think that she might look up to Richard the same way he had once looked up to the older Physical Kids. He had the definite sense that Janet must have slept with Richard once or twice back at Brakebills. It was entirely possibly that they slept together once in a while now.
(Page 232-233).

As a consequence, many of these characters never come alive the way the Harry Potter characters do. You’re told what personality each character is supposed to have, but you really only see glimpses of it for yourself.

Right, so what twists does Grossman offer that’s supposed to justify this 200 page Harry Potter redux?

Well, the language is coarser for one thing. The word “fuck” makes the occasional appearance.
Then there’s sex.
The Harry Potter characters had plenty of romantic angst over the course of their 7 books, but although there was lots of “snogging” (the British term for make-out sessions, I believe) sex was never an explicit part of the Harry Potter world.
The characters in “The Magicians” are actively having adult sex. And occasionally things turn nasty, and one character will have sex with another as a sort of power play, or revenge sex.
So I guess that’s sort of a twist. But even here, if you substitute “snogging” for sex, this wasn’t entirely alien to the Harry Potter world. Harry Potter characters would occasionally snog someone for the purpose of making someone else jealous.

The other twist, the young-adult angst, is also not entirely alien to the Harry Potter world. Harry Potter characters also have a fair amount of angst about growing up and finding their place in this world that is retread in The Magicians.
What’s slightly different is that Grossman adds the element of ennui here. The Harry Potter characters are always on a mission, so they never really sit around getting bored with their lives. Grossman’s characters get bored despite having all the magical world at their finger tips. Or maybe because of having all the magic they get bored, since they don’t have to work for anything. At any rate, just like spoiled rich kids anywhere, they seek to escape their boredom through drugs and alcohol.
This is a twist, and it is new to the material, but it doesn’t really kick in fully until the characters graduate, and so you have to wade through 200 pages first to get to the twist, and, in my opinion, it’s just not worth it.

Then, the characters discover that they can escape to the magical land of Fillory. (Just as Brakebills is Grossman’s stand in for Hogwarts, Fillory operates as his stand in for Narnia).

This section is slightly more interesting, or at least better paced. First of all the Fillory world already operates as a book-within-a-book in the world of The Magicians, and so before The Magicians' characters even set foot in the land of Fillory/Narnia, they are already familiar with all the conceits and clichés of this world. Consequently we don’t have to have 200 pages of Grossman setting everything up first before he can begin to deconstruct it, and we just jump into the story quicker.

There then follows a Narnia like adventure.

One of the reasons I kept reading this book past all the boring Harry Potter redux sections was that I was really looking forward to the Narnia sections. The books cover (and all the positive reviews) promised a much darker macabre twist on the Narnia material, and I was really curious to see what these would be. I was fully expecting to be shocked and horrified, but, as with before, the twists Grossman introduces are disappointing and really predictable.

The first twist is the violence.

In C.S. Lewis’s books, there’s a lot of violence or implied violence going on, but of course it’s kept very clean as you would expect from 1950s children’s book. Characters may clash with swords occasionally, but you don’t hear about the swords being graphically plunged into someone’s guts.
In real life, of course, the conflicts described in these books would end up being a lot more brutal.
Of course you’re a fully functioning adult now, and you've probably figured that out already. But just in case it hadn’t dawned on you, Grossman treats you to about 30 pages of fantastic characters graphically killing each other: giant anthropomorphic rabbits getting their necks violently broken, and fox men getting knives thrown into their eye sockets.

The next twist is the Chatwin children (Grossman’s stand in for the Pevensie children from C.S. Lewis’s book.) become incredibly maladjusted to society as a result of their Fillory/Narnia experience.

It is true that in his books CS Lewis never explored what it would do to a child’s psyche to abruptly go from being a ruler of a magical kingdom to revert back to a school child again.

The recent Narnia movies, however, did attempt to tackle this question.
So once again this feels like retread ground to me. Granted Grossman takes it in a darker direction, but to me it’s still retreading the same theme.

Then, there’s a surprise twist at the end, which really isn’t much of a surprise at all, and which just made me groan when I read it. “Really? That obvious?” I said aloud to my copy of the book.

* Sidenote: Although this book was highly praised by professional reviewers, most of the reviewers on share my disappointment with this book [SEE AMAZON CUSTOMER REVIEWS HERE]. I probably should have checked out the Amazon reviews first and spared myself the disappointment.

That being said, some of my disappointment with this book may well have been the problem of high expectations. I probably allowed myself to be too influenced by a few reviews that praised this book too much.

I will say this for the book: it fully absorbed my attention while I was reading it, and I blazed through all 400 pages in only 3 days. (Which for me, anyway, is saying something. I’m one of those slow readers who usually gets about 50 pages into a book, then gets distracted by something else, and then ends up taking months to finish a short book.)
The reason I was so into this book when I was reading it was that I kept waiting for it to get good. And when I got to the ending and discovered that this was all there was to the book, I felt disappointed.

And yet even so, the very fact that this book held my attention for 3 days straight is probably saying something.

Maybe I should give it half a recommendation after all?


Plot Holes, Spoilers, and Miscellaneous [The following section contains lots of Spoilers.]

There are a lot of plot holes, and other things that don’t make a lot of sense in this book.

I know it’s a fantasy book, and I’m not supposed to take it too seriously. But sometimes I can’t help myself. [Plus, for a book that was written in part to address what Grossman thought were plot holes in the Harry Potter and Narnia series (how he thought it was so strange Harry Potter didn't read fantasy books, etc), his own book contains an awful lot of plot holes.]

I’m not going to pick on all the things that didn’t make sense in this book, but I will highlight a few things:

* First of all, what’s the deal with Julia? Such a big deal is made of her, and yet was she just totally superfluous to this whole story, or what?
I understand she takes on an expanded role in the sequel, so maybe her inclusion in this book was just to set up her character for the sequel?
Except that in this interview [LINK HERE], Grossman says that he wasn’t originally planning a sequel when he wrote The Magicians.
So what was the point of Julia in this book?

* A whole lot of stuff with the Chatwin children just made no sense.
Quentin is repeatedly described as being obsessed with the Fillory books. He even seems aware of some of the scholarly research on these books. And yet it comes as a surprise to him when Alice reveals to that the Chatwin children who figure in the Fillory books are based on real life Chatwin children who lived near the Fillory books author Christopher Plummer.
You would think that this would have been one of the first things a real fan would discover.
Also the real life Chatwin child Martin Chatwin disappears in real life just as the Martin Chatwin character in the Fillory books does. You would also think this would be bigger news.
Then, at the end of the book we find that Christopher Plummer had been raping Martin Chatwin. It turns out this is the reason why Martin Chatwin had been trying to hide in the clock to begin with.
And yet, Christopher Plummer was also the person the Chatwin children went to in order to confide their Fillory adventures to? That doesn’t make any sense.

* From an interview with Grossman:

AVC: At first glance, The Magicians could be seen as a totally ironic look at fantasy. And then some of your characters reference things like Harry Potter and Oz by name. Did you have any internal debate about including those references?

LG: Oh, yeah. I even had external debates about it. [Laughs.] But here’s what I’ve always thought: It’s very weird that Harry Potter isn’t a fantasy reader. Here he is growing up in a closet, surrounded by an abusive stepfamily. I would think he’d be obsessed with and read nothing but fantasy. I did, and I didn’t even have an abusive stepfamily. When he gets to Hogwarts, it’s as if he’s never read a fantasy novel in his life. It’s obviously something that J.K. Rowling opted out of and chose not to deal with. But I thought it would be interesting if everyone who goes to my magic school has spent their whole life playing Gauntlet and Dungeons & Dragons and reading Narnia and Harry Potter. They would see everything through that lens and compare everything to what they’ve read about in books. I wasn’t making a big metafictional point; I just think that’s how it would happen. And I wanted to cue people that Harry Potter was part of this universe, yet I didn’t want to get super-overbearing about it. I also didn’t want to get into an intellectual-property lawsuit. [Laughs.] There’s just a couple winky-wink moments that hope aren’t too cute. There was a lot of debate within myself and with other people about how far to go with that. I didn’t want to seem like I was making fun of Harry Potter. I love Harry Potter. I just felt that my characters would make fun of Harry Potter.

I can see what Grossman is trying to do, but now he’s got an all-or-nothing problem going on here.
Either Grossman’s characters are aware of the Harry Potter books or they’re not. The couple passing references they make towards Harry Potter indicate that they are. But then it doesn’t make any sense that they wouldn’t reference Harry Potter more. Everything that happens to them is so similar to Harry Potter. When they first encounter this magical school for wizards, you would think that their first point of reference would be Harry Potter.

* So, I don’t get it, what was the deal with all those magical creatures they had to fight until they got to Ember? Were they all on Martin’s side?
Martin had conducted this elaborate plan to lure the Magicians into Ember’s prison, and then defeat them. Which was why Dint and Favel helped him lure the magicians there. I guess? But why Ember’s prison? And if it was Martin’s plan to encounter the Magicians in Ember’s dungeon all along, why did his creatures fight so hard to keep them away?
Did that mean Dint was fighting against the creatures on his own side for the purposes of the ruse?

* So, in the end we find out that Dint was working for Martin the whole time. But Fen wasn’t I guess? Because the characters all continued to refer to her death as a tragedy. How do we know she wasn’t working for Martin like Dint? And if she wasn’t, then what was her game this whole time? She must have known she was leading them to Ember’s prison, right?
And the river nymph? What was the deal with her? Was that ever explained?

* Time in Fillory apparently works just like it does in Narnia. No matter how little or how long you spend in Fillory, whenever you leave you’re back in the real world as if no time has passed at all. And when your in the real world, you have no idea how much time is passing in Fillory.
The book goes to consider effort to set this up and make this clear.
And then after all that, the ending of the book is totally inconsistent. What’s the deal with that? How come when Quentin finally exits from Fillory, time has passed in the real world?

* So, what was the deal with that dead guy in the beginning of the book? Was that ever explained?

[Sigh, and lots of other various other things in the book that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me. But I’m done with it now. I’ve spent too much time on this book and this book review already. I’m moving on to other things that are more worthy of my time and energy.]

Link of the Day
Chatting with Chomsky 
and  Drone warfare's deadly civilian toll: a very personal view

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Expendables 2

(Movie Review)

It was dinner and a movie night with a group of friends the other night. The movie playing was Expendables 2.

I had never seen the first Expendables, but my friends assured me that it didn’t really matter. There was no complicated plot I had to worry about.

It’s pretty pointless to review a movie like this. If I were in a bad mood, I could complain that this movie was a loud, stupid, mindless action flick, with lots of dumb one-liners, that was reminiscent of the worst excesses of the big dumb action movies from the 1980s.
But this movie is deliberately designed to be a tribute to the big dumb action movies from the 1980s. So you get exactly what you pay for I suppose.
If the movie seems at times like it’s parodying itself—well that’s because it is.

As a mindless action flick, it’s entertaining enough. As much as possible, try and turn off your brain before the movie starts. And make sure you bring in lots of salty snacks, candy, and coca-cola to shovel into your face while you watch this movie.

And yes, it was pretty cool to see Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme all together in the same scene. (And yes, also the other assorted action stars in this movie—Jet Li, Dolph Lundgrem, Jason Stathom).

My only complaint, if I had to make a complaint, is that none of the action scenes were all that spectacular. But what can you expect? Many of the stars are getting very old. (Chuck Norris is 71.) And so the movie requires them to do little more than hold guns and press the trigger and yell out dumb catch phrases.

* There has got to be a lot of really easy money to be made as a Hollywood screenwriter. How hard can it be to write a story like this? Or come up with this kind of dialogue?

* I was never allowed to watch these dumb 80s action flicks when I was a kid. In fact, the conservative religious community that I grew up in blamed these ultra-violent Hollywood movies for just about everything that was going wrong in the world.
So how ironic is it that all so many of these movie stars are right wing Republicans now? Both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris are active Republicans. (Adding in John Wayne, Charlton Heston, and Clint Eastwood, and for some reason it looks like we have a fine tradition of Hollywood action movie stars as active Republicans.)
Chuck Norris is famous for both his right wing views and his born-again Christianity.
It's hard not to wonder how he reconciles his day job with his Christian activism. When watching him machine gun several bad guys, you wonder, "Really, is this what Jesus would do?"
But I'm guessing he draws a clear line between escapist entertainment, and the real world. And come to that, so do I. Which is how I justify going to these violent movies.

Link of the Day
Why America and Israel Are the Greatest Threats to Peace

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The AVclub today put out their review of Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Which I'm linking to just out of pure nostalgia.

During my phase when I was working my way through classic horror films, this was one of my favourites. Mostly for the same reason the review cites.

It works remarkably well. Plus it was one of only 3 movies in which all 3 Universal monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman) got to share the same screen. (House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula being the other two).

And it also brings back the original actors for the Monsters (Glenn Strange wasn't the original original Frankenstein, but he had played the monster before in previous movies. Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. are the pure originals.)