Sunday, February 7, 2010

Lev Grossman's "The Magicians": You Can't Go Home Again

My three late-childhood reading obsessions can be summarized easily: The Chronicles of Narnia; its less-famous cousin, The Chronicles of Prydain; and Tom Sawyer. And then when I was 12 or 13, I read Stephen King's The Eyes of the Dragon, which thoroughly obsessed me for months.

Though I never got into the Middle Earth saga, all the books I really loved (OK, maybe with the exception of Tom Sawyer) suggested I was going to end up as Renaissance Faire geek, summoning the moon, experimenting with Wicca, tattooing myself with unicorns, and listening to a lot of Loreena McKennitt.

I kind of wanted to end up that way. I kept trying to get into it; in high school, several of my dear friends loved the scene. But my parents were vaguely suspicious about the air of paganism and truancy that surrounded the whole culture, and the one Renaissance Faire I ever went to--not until college--spoiled the whole deal. Beyond the jousting and the wax hand-dipping, there was one exhibit behind a little hut, marked with signs that said, "Come see the littlest Unicorn!"

I was 19 by this point, there with my boyfriend over summer break. We were doing our best to get into the spirit of things, and the sign noted that the extra charge to meet the numinous beast would be donated to the March of Dimes. So we each paid the extra $2 to go behind the hut. We followed an incredibly excited pair of 8-year-old girls who were squealing to each other about the amazingness of what we were all about to see.

Behind the hut, in a small clearing scattered with hay and droppings that looked like buckshot, was a red-eyed teenaged boy in a slouchy velvet hat and leggings. The smell of marijuana around him was so strong it was almost visible, like the clouds of dust that follow Pigpen in the Peanuts cartoons. He was holding a rope attached to the halter of ... a small white goat with no horns.

Now, I can't say exactly what I expected to see. I knew it would not be a unicorn. I kinda thought it would be a pony with some sort of horn strapped to its head. I expected that they would have made SOME sort of effort, at least, to wow us just a little bit. I watched as the two little girls ahead of us frowned and looked at each other. And then one of them said to Cheech Greensleeves, "That's not a unicorn."

I waited for Cheech to spin some excellent fairy dust about how it had lost its horn through a curse, or how it was so young its horn hadn't sprouted yet.

But Cheech (who, let's be honest, had a lousy job and did not belong in any arm of the hospitality industry) leaned down and said to the girl, "That's right. It's a goat. And do you know WHY it's not a unicorn?"

The girls shook their heads.

"It's not a unicorn because children like you don't believe in unicorns anymore."

I give the kids a lot of credit for not a) bursting into tears (which likely would have been my approach at their age), or b) punching him right in his THC-laced nuts, which is what I thought he deserved. They just looked at him and looked at each other and looked disappointed, and then left.

My boyfriend and I did the same, and immediately began discussing whether we should ask for our money back. In principle, we felt we should. I don't think we did, though. Perhaps we were hoping that the $4 we'd given the March of Dimes would prevent more tragedies like Cheech. In any case, that was my first and last Renaissance Faire. And while I actually did like the wax hand-dipping and kept the resulting Mickey Mouse-ish wax glove for several years, nothing at the Faire came anywhere close to providing the kind of pleasure I'd gotten reading the Narnia or Prydain books, or from fantasizing that I lived in a place where it was possible to ditch school and go drift down a river on a home-made raft.

Honestly, while I've loved reading as long as I can remember, post-junior high, it's been rare that I've found a book that I loved as obsessively and devotedly as I loved those. Sure, I've read great books, I've found books that made me think and laugh and cry, I've found books that blew my mind with their ideas (Swift's Waterland, Quinn's Ishmael, Fowles' Daniel Martin all leap to mind). But books I wanted to chuck it all and LIVE in? Very rare.

And of course, once you actually study them, the Narnia books--like all books subject to academic exegesis--are tainted. If you read them again, you spot the sexism and the xenophobia and the religious fundamentalism, and it makes the whole thing just a little bit harder to get lost in.

But of course, where can you live then? Reality is such a pain in the ass, so lacking in winged horses and warddrobes that give way to winter forests. I can tell you what's in my warddrobe: Clothes. A mess of clothes, some of them I need to wash soon in order to look presentable for my job--a good job, all in all, but one where I work in a cubicle a good part of the time and rarely have to escape from Tashbaan in the middle of the night riding a talking horse.

All of this is a long way to get around to asking: Have there been any books you really wanted to live in since you turned 18? And if not, why not? It can't be that the books aren't as good. Qualitatively, the books are almost certainly better. At least some of them.

And a long way to get to my plug, which is this: If you are an adult who grew up on the Narnia books, if you like the Harry Potter books now, you should read Lev Grossman's The Magicians. I've been snowed in for the past few days and I read it basically overnight. It deserves the praise it's getting, and will make you remember the feeling of wanting to live in a book. (Not that you'll want to live in his. You won't.)

Read it, please, then come back and tell me a) why, once you pass puberty, so few books inspire the longing to live in them? And b) whether you think Grossman's ending is happy or sad. Because I can't make up my mind, and it's bothersome in the best kind of way.