Lev Grossman is the book critic for Time magazine and author of the 2004 novel Codex. He’s also a total geek. His new novel, The Magicians (Viking, 416 pp., $26.95), is about a young wizard who graduates from wizarding school, gets lost in downtown New York dissipation, then tries to redeem himself by exploring alternate universes. Wizards on E? Naturally, we had some questions for him.
Reviewers have described The Magicians as an amalgamation of other books. It’s Jay McInerney meets J.K. Rowling, or it’s Less Than Zero plus Harry Potter. What’s your own amalgamation description?
You can’t really leave out Rowling or C.S. Lewis, but the other main presences are Evelyn Waugh, particularly Brideshead Revisted, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Waugh takes young characters out of their sort of adolescent idyll and projects them into a very harsh and disorderly world—and just watches them flounder and sink. As they look for, you know, meaning and happiness and other things. God, I guess. And that’s the structure of The Magicians, pretty much wholesale. There’s also The Secret History. Some reviewers have piped on this. I wouldn’t say it’s a great, great book, but it’s very important to me in a way. . . . I read it, and it was this wonderful murder mystery that was written in a very polished literary style. You couldn’t really tell whether you were reading trash or high literature. Some kind of hybrid beast. When I was done, I immediately thought, That’s it. That’s the stuff for me.
Which led you to mix booze and coke with Harry Potter . . .
I love Harry Potter, and it’s a great fear of mine that The Magicians will be seen as a criticism or even an attack on Rowling. But I wanted to . . . test him. To test Harry. Or a Harry-like figure. To see what would happen if he was, say, having sex instead of snogging, or drinking real beer instead of butterbeer, if . . . his friends didn’t have a Voldemort in their universe to tell them who’s good and who’s evil, to give them something to fight against.
And what happens?
Well, the story becomes less about fighting evil, using magic to fight evil, and more about trying to figure out . . . what the fuck magic is for.
Quentin—the book’s Park Slope native turned wizarding hero—falls into a pattern of disappointment, unbounded hope, then disappointment again. Is that based on any kind of personal experience?
I was—and, to some extent, still am—the kind of person who thought that, you know, once I got X, everything will be great and perfect. Once I get to Harvard, everything will be great. Once I publish a novel, everything will be great. And so on. And then, only gradually, I came to the realization that, wow, there are still massive problems that exist. I think I linked that in my mind with a series of books that I was obsessed with as a little kid—the Narnia novels.
The Narnia novels?
C.S. Lewis invented this wonderful fantasyland, Narnia, and then, at the end of the series, it fucking falls apart. Do you remember The Last Battle? A truly shocking book. All the Pevensies [the sibling heroes of the Narnia books] die, and Narnia is destroyed. Spoiler alert. And things are a disaster, dwarves start killing some of Narnia’s talking animals, and everyone retreats back into Aslan’s land, which is presumably the real perfect land where every problem is really solved. You kind of have a sense that even that will collapse eventually, and you don’t know where the hell everybody’s going to go after that. Yale, I guess.
Why did Fillory, your own Narnia-esque alternate universe, have to include a boozy bear?
My single favorite character in the book? Humbledrum the drunken bear? Well, I think if animals could actually talk, they would be incredibly boring. I mean, how incredibly dull would it be to talk to a bear about . . . anything? And I wanted to play with that idea. As a gentle correction—not correction, wrong word. An anxiety of influence play on Lewis’s talking animals.
I’ve noticed other allusions in the book. Let’s see, Dungeons and Dragons, the video game Gauntlet Legends . . .
Gauntlet Legends, yes. A very important early influence on me.
How did Harry Potter change the fantasy world?
Harry Potter expanded the audience for fantasy. Massively. For good and for ill. There was a period of time when being a fantasy fan was being part of a tight-knit community. In the ’80s and ’90s, I think everybody felt sort of hazed. . . . It’s not as big a deal now, as fantasy is much more mainstream. Still, it’s great. I mean, it allows me to publish a book like this.
Why do you like to write about nerds?
What used to be thought of as nerd culture in the ’80s and early ’90s has simply become culture. The idea that, you know, a movie like The Lord of the Rings could be the No. 1 movie of the year—20 years ago, that was, literally, unimaginable. Now, nerd culture is culture.
Still, in a recent blog post, you wrote that there’s a school of journalism that could be called the “What will these crazy nerds think of next?” school.
Well, there’s a school of reporting that treats nerd culture as a freakish and hilarious aberration. This is the school that goes to the fantasy convention and takes pictures of all the cosplayers, then says, “Isn’t it hilarious that somebody dresses up as a character from Sailor Moon?” It’s incredible to me that there are still people who think that is amusing or weird . . . but there are.
Does fantasy get the respect it deserves among scholars?
I think the academy still regards fantasy as largely radioactive. With science fiction, they picked up on certain writers—William Gibson, Philip K. Dick—and decided, “Hey, these guys are all right,” and let them into the club. Philip K. Dick is now in the Library of America. There’s no fantasy in the Library of America. For some reason, it’s just . . . they won’t touch it. But they should.
Do you write fan fiction?
No, I never have. Unless you count The Magicians.