I previously wrote about the thematics of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I’ve thought more about the novel since then and have tried to figure out how I feel about the ending. One of the ways that I framed that project is by thinking about the points along the way where it could have ended and whether or not that ending would have been more of a literary or a genre fiction ending. Note that I’m writing this before reading anything at all about the sequel other than the fact that it exists.
Here are the major potential ending points that I see:
Genre/Literary: it ends when Quentin is granted his third wish from the Questing Stag, and it ends right as he fades to go home or appears on the street in Brooklyn. This is the not-deal-fully-with-the-consequences ending. It’s a perfectly valid one. The reader is left with bittersweetness, the losses experienced in Fillory still somewhat fresh in mind. It’s also the most natural place to stop and set up a sequel. And I think it could be viewed as either a literary or a genre ending. Certainly the fade to black, the leaving to go home is an ending that has been used in many literary and genre novels.
Literary: it ends when Quentin uses the iron key and returns to Brakebills. We are given to understand that this is a retreat from engagement with the world. It is a failure to reach maturity. It is a giving in to defeat.
Genre: it ends when Quentin uses the iron key and returns to Brakebills, but there is an epilogue where it shows that he ends up staying on there as a faculty member, inspiring future generations of magicians, but also having about him the whiff of tragedy and failure.
Literary: it ends with Quentin giving up practicing magic and settling into a mundane existence. That mundane existence is portrayed as a grinding never-quite-reached atonement for his naive devotion to Fillory and the losses of life and innocence that occurred as a result of that longing.
Genre: it ends with Quentin giving up practicing magic and settling into a mundane existence, but there is a wistfulness and a hint of magic and the slightest hope that things go better for him in the future.
Literary: it ends with Quentin either settling into an uneasy relationship with Emily or realizing that he can’t enter into a relationship with her. Or he sleeps with her once, and it ends with his realization that the only thing they have in common is their trauma.
Genre: it ends with Quentin realizing he can’t have a relationship with Emily and that what he really wants to do is to go back to Fillory and rule as a king with his original love Julia by his side as queen. This is (more or less) how it actually ends. Now this isn’t a pure genre ending because we’re still living with the point the Alice makes–that Quentin will never be happy. There’s nothing to contradict it.
One of the reasons I went through this excercise is that it does seem to me that the ending is more genre than literary. And I don’t think I was expecting that. I suppose that once you peel back the sort of kick-ass of image of Quentin’s friends blowing out the window of his office and floating there in the air with Julia looking hot and in full hedge witch mode, there is some complexity there because of the ground that’s already been covered. We as readers may see behind the seeming awesomeness and realize that this is a sad decision to make. On the other hand, Quentin is given a way out. And he takes it. And it happens in kind of a bad ass way. In the movie version, this would be a total scene of triumph — it’s like the end of The Matrix or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It’s like, dude, it’s time to ride. Oh, and here’s the hot chick you love.
Meanwhile, of course, Alice — the most talented of them all — is dead. But that happened several chapters ago.
So I’m not sure I’m really satisfied with the ending. It reinforces too much the emo vibe of the book. I think it probably should have ended earlier and the scene of Quentin leaving his office should have kicked off the next book.
On the other hand, I’m also pleased that Lev Grossman goes for more of a genre ending than a literary one.
And I’m sure everything all goes to hell in the sequel.