I just redid my livejournal, so I decided that this blog deserved a reciprocal souping up. I’m quite happy with the layout, and I encourage you to check it out!
I read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians shortly after I returned home (to Chicago) post Thanksgiving, and I am probably going to read it again on the plane home (to Orlando) this afternoon. I’ve been mulling over how to talk about it for two weeks now; this isn’t exactly my final word on the book, but it’s good enough to get started.
About three years ago, when I was working in Wash U’s library and processing new books, I realized that I was reading an awful lot of cisgender male authors. Without thinking too much about the implications, I decided that I was going to go out of my way to read female-identified authors (all other non-cisgender-male flavors of the gender spectrum being equally awesome, but not consciously on my radar at that point), because it seemed kind of silly. As a classicist, I was already trawling through a lot of dead white* dudes. This was also the summer that I read Cunt by Inga Muscio, because that is a book that all college ladies who like women and gender studies love, subsequently desiring giant posters of daisies to put up on their walls, at least if by “all college ladies” you mean “Olga.” Although I can’t say that I took anything directly from my reading material at the time (aside from the fact that the reason I’ve always thought Che Guevara was hot is that he looks like one of my ex-boyfriends – see: processing the new books) , I had become more aware of what I was reading, and more importantly, what our library was buying.
Right now, I read a lot of stuff by non-cisgender-dudes (let’s call ’em NCDs), even without taking into account that Most Fanfic Writers Are Girls. Part of this is that my reading tends to center around my academic work; part of this is just due to the fact that I tend to prefer books written by NCDs for whatever reason. I could never get past The Hobbit because even the promise of slashy subtext could not compensate for 700 pages of dudes slogging through a forest or whatever. The best part of that shit was Legolas’s hair, and Orlando Bloom was not in the book. Back on topic. When I do read books by cisgender dudes, I’m conscious of their gender identity, albeit in casual way. Terry Pratchett’s CD status would never put me off a Discworld book.
My friend H. Susanne Moore sold The Magicians to me with promises of drunk magic students making fun of Quidditch. Like I could refuse that. So I began the book with few expectations aside from meta magical boarding school lulz. I didn’t look at the jacket flap — actually, I still haven’t looked at the jacket flap, even though the book is within grabbing distance. TOO BAD, GENTLE READERS. For the first half of the book, I though it was going to be like Harry Potter with booze and sex, so I was taken by surprise as the book slowly veered away from the obvious path into a serious meditation on what fantasy means and the implications of power with few limits or purpose.
The Magicians is a really, really good book; I recommended it a few posts back cheek-by-jowl with The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which is a smart and sassy feminist coming-of-age story, and my favorite book of 2007. I lend it to everyone. Like The Disreputable History, The Magicians ends with the main character having reached a place of knowledge rather than a “happy” ending. Frankie’s story is written for a younger audience, although it translates wonderfully to older readers; Quentin’s story is darker. The story doesn’t resolve with the conclusion of the novel; instead, we’re left with more questions than we ever had answers. They’re good questions. They messed me up for a few days, in the best kind of way. Like I said: a good book.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
But it’s not quite as simple as that, of course. The Magicians is also incredibly and disconcertingly sexist. Although the most powerful magician in the story’s world is a woman, the female characters are never truly developed or explained to the reader. The magician in question sacrifices herself to save her (CD) lover, who is a jerk who cheated on her and has been spending his time post-graduation loafing aimlessly around NYC. The female characters in the book serve as objects of male sexual desire, symbols of motherhood, and/or they die. They are defined by their relationships to men: mother, sister, hot teacher, daughter, lover, sexual conquest, whatever. It’s pretty bleak for a gal in Fillory, NYC, Brakebills, wherever she goes in the magical world, or outside it.
I love this book. And I want to read it, think about it, discuss it, take it apart. But it’s like a barrel full of apples and some of them are the most delicious and some of them are rotten to the core. I came away with good questions, but I also came away with questions I didn’t want to have to ask: where are we? why are we invisible? why aren’t our questions important? why does my cunt make me pure and self-sacrificing and dirty and deranged? Also, dead.
I don’t have a daisy on my wall.
*Although we tend to forget that a lot of the Roman empire was, you know, Africa/the Middle East. I’m not sure how many authors from that area were of Italian descent (probably a good handful), but there were certainly people indigenous to those areas writing at that time, albeit those raised and educated in Roman imperial culture. Somebody has probably written about this, but I am heading out to the airport in three hours, so I do not have time to J-STOR.