Bad Guys Ahoy!
June 10, 2012 § Leave a comment
Apologies for the lateness, but the problem with having a schedule is that you need to keep it, even when other things come up.
Week 23: The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
This book tells the story of a boy who goes from being a sad, petulant loser as a teen, to being a sad, petulant loser as an adult…with magic. The Onion described it as a story about “wanting something and not getting it”, which is a fairly comprehensive summation of the story. This book really is about wanting something so badly that you let it define you until you realize that your wants simply aren’t enough to encompass a whole human being (where have I heard that before…hmmm?). And yes, there’s magic involved, which is always a plus.
Some of the best things about this book were the little rhetorical flourishes that Grossman scattered throughout. My favorite was when he described a character sweating as having “a rill of sweat run down his armpit”. When I read it, I didn’t know that a rill was a “small stream”, and that made that sentence stood out. Not only is it an uncommon word, it is an uncommon word in a very conspicuous place. I don’t know how many times I’ve used or read “trickle of sweat”, and although it’s a perfectly utilitarian expression, I certainly noticed when Grossmandidn’tuse it.
But this book was very interesting for some other reasons. First, and foremost, this book lacks a clear antagonist. I’ve been thinking a lot about antagonists and villains lately, and how Grossman handles his villains struck a chord with me.
Yes, I said villains instead of “antagonist”. To use that charmingly quaint format, wherein protagonists have a goal and antagonists oppose said goal, The Magicians lacks a clear antagonist. For that matter, as its a coming-of-age story, it also lacks a clear goal for the first two-thirds, but that’s a horse of a different colour. See, as regards antagonists, they’re some of the most important parts of the story. The heroes gotta fight something, because if there’s no conflict, then I’m just reading Ulysses, and that’s not what anyone wants. That’s one of the things I liked about The Sisters Brothers, because despite the fact that who the antagonist was was not clear and also changed during the course of the book, that very uncertainty hovered over the book and left you questioning what was really going to happen.
Not so in The Magicians. In this book, the protagonist doesn’t have a clear goal and that’s an essential part of the story. What kid at 17 or so has a clear goal they’re working towards except graduating, or in this case, graduating and becoming a magician? As is often the case, you are your own worst enemy when it comes to finishing school. That, however, means that it’s not clear who’s being opposed and who’s doing the opposing.
To take it a step further, The Magicians does sort of have an antagonist, but he only shows up twice in the book and before that, is rarely mentioned. He’s more of the “puppet-master” bad guy, rather than the more vanilla and “in your face” villain and so isn’t expected until it’s too late. But that means that throughout the story, the reader doesn’t know who is actively opposing the protagonist. Much of that is because, yes, it’s “man vs himself“, and so doesn’tneeda visible bad guy, but it got me thinking.
I have a villain problem. Namely, that I don’t have any.
Look at Lovers for a second. Remember I mentioned I had structural problems? Let’s talk one over. Patrick has an antagonist in Gabriel, but there are two problems with it. First, the reader doesn’t know that until far, far too late in the story. One of the things I need to do is go back and introduce him much earlier. He doesn’t need to be in Patrick’s face, but the reader needs to see, or at least suspect, that not everything is peachy-keen in Heaven. The second is that I need to show him actually opposing Patrick. By now, we know how (for those of you who aren’t carefully following my story and shame on you, he’s trying to trick Patrick into forgetting about his wife because…well, we haven’t quite gotten there yet) he’s doing that, but we haven’t really seen him doanything. He needs, in my opinion, be a more active story character before he starts running around being all evil.
But that’s nothing compared to the huge problem with Amira’s antagonist. Is it Lucifer, Mr. Saturday, Sutyr, or herself? Frankly, I don’t even know, and that’s problematic for me. I looked back and she appears to me to be pinballing, just bouncing off of character after character, not really knowing what’s going on. While I did want that to reinforce just how out of her league she is, she’s only drifting towards where she needs to go. And I’ve certainly mentioned that things want her and are out to get her, Hell, I framed that pretty well in her first three chapters. But then…I dropped off and it didn’t go anywhere. One of the things I need to do for her during the editing is to go back and give her some drive. Maybe put some pressure on her like time or something, just to be the motive force that pushes her. I don’t mind her being a ping-pong ball, but I do mind her being aimless.
That’s one reason why I liked The Magicians so much. I’ll be upfront and say that I have no desire to read The Magician King, the sequel (and barring, of course, it having a really interesting dust jacket), because for me the story is finished, but that said, I really like how Grossman worked his story to get me interested in a character fighting against himself without it being framed through conflict with some external force, something that I still struggle with. He also did a really good job with everything else, too, so you should read it too.
One thing that I did find a little wonky about the book was that Grossman, I guess, really wanted us to see how despite being magicians, these kids are still human too. There’s a lot of sex, pissing, drinking, and puking, sometimes too much. Sure, the first time he vividly described the protagonist pissing in the shower I noticed it, but by the end when I encountered the (no exaggeration) centaur orgy herd, I rolled my eyes and kept reading. It’s not shock value, per se, but moreso that I had been saturated. Yes, these characters are humans that need to have sex and do other stuff with their genitals, but that’s not why I’m here. And if you’re there for that, you’re a dirty dirty person that doesn’t realize there is porn on the internet.
That said, it’s poll time! We have some cool-looking books that came out this week (and two classics I still need to read), so take a look and let me know what you want to vicariously read through me!
– John is just happy that Grossman worked dragons into the story.