Literary and genre endings in The Magicians

WHM lays out some possible alternative ending points for Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and whether they’d be a more genre or a more literary ending.

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.

The thematics of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians

A post in which WHM discusses the key thematics of the final section of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and why some of them didn’t work for him (with a particular emphasis on the Chatwin siblings).

Please note that this is a work of literary criticism and as such there may be major or minor spoilers ahead. Also note that I have yet to read Grossman’s sequel so my mind may change once I read it.

I enjoyed Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, but it was not an unalloyed experience for me. Part of the reason why can be found in the levels of thematics that one encounters near the end (but not the very very end) of the novel, especially in the latter part of the Fillory section.

The first theme, Quentin’s theme, which is one that Alice specifically spells out for us at one point, is that a change of scenery doesn’t cure unhappiness. You are who you are no matter what magical educational institution (Brakebills) or land (Fillory) you may gain access to. This is a good theme. It’s an especially good theme for a novel that’s trying to provide a grittier, more complex version of both the magic school and the magic land tropes in fantasy. Of course, I could do without the straight-up explication of the theme at so many points. But that’s okay. It still worked for me.

The second theme, which is Martin Chatwin’s theme, is that you can’t stay in a fantasy land forever and doing so warps you and turns you into something evil. This is also a good theme, although it’s hammered home a little too bluntly for my tastes.

The third theme, which is Jane Chatwin’s theme, is bound up with the meta-narrative of the novel. Jane has been manipulating timelines using her magic watch. Thus all the pain and loss and alienation that Quentin and co. experience is kind of her fault. This theme is that even the best possible timeline/outcome still leads to pain and loss — that such things aren’t avoidable because that’s just how life works. This is an okay theme, but it feels rather tacked on, and that made me a little bit cranky.

The fourth theme, which is Martin Chatwin’s deeper theme, is revealed by Jane to Quentin. It is that child abuse causes serious damage to a child and can turn them into someone who later inflicts pain on others. This one really made me cranky. Let me be clear: it’s a perfectly valid theme. Child abuse is horrible. The problem, though, is that it clouds the other themes and crowds out much of what it seemed to me Grossman was trying to do. The whole trail of causation leads back to an act of child abuse. Perfectly plausible and valid, even in a genre work. Not where I would have chosen to go in a work that is trying to deconstruct Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia. Again, I’m fairly sympathetic to the project Grossman is undertaking with this novel. But I think that by taking it in this direction you add darkness to already darkness, which mitigates the impact. And it also, in some ways, let’s everybody off of the hook: Martin, Jane, Quentin, Quentin’s friends.

On the whole, I could have done without the thematic layers that Jane brought because I thought they muddied the wrong waters (I’ll have more to say about the actual actual ending of the novel later). Although I will say this: I loved Jane’s crack about the clocks in the trees that don’t do or mean anything. That’s the sort of meta-absurdity that The Magicians could have used more of.