Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Magical Realism

An old friend enthusiastically recommended a new novel to me. Then I saw a review describing the book as "Harry Potter for grownups." I was mildly offended - didn't about 8 million grownups read and enjoy all 100,000 words? (I'm a librarian. I could have looked those numbers up, but I chose to invent them instead. Sorry.)

But I think I missed the point. The reviewer said "Harry Potter grows up." Or in this case, Quentin, from The Magicians by Lev Grossman, goes from being a genius high school senior in Brooklyn to being a first year student at Brakebills, a five year magician's college in upstate New York. Sign me up!

I've always loved books about ordinary kids and magic, starting with Half-Magic by Edward Eager, moving on to Steel Magic and Dragon Magic by Andre Norton (no one does this better than Ms. Norton), and of course, the magical world of C. S. Lewis' Narnia, to which Mr. Grossman pays sly homage in his new novel. The writers I mention understood that "real" magic wasn't always fun or cute, but could be sad and scary - just like "real" life.

J. K. Rowling understands that, and Lev Grossman gets it too. His older students may transform themselves into geese and fly to Antarctica (shades of The Once and Future King!), but they also sometimes drink too much and sleep with the wrong people. If you ever wondered what a Hogwarts grad might do for a living if they didn't become an Auror, or play professional Quidditch, The Magicians suggests some possibilities.

Maybe it's the juxtaposition of mundane and magical that we like so much. Harry Dresden still has to get around Chicago in a cranky Volkswagen Beetle despite the presence of demons and pixies in his everyday life. Magic doesn't solve everything, and in fact, often makes life harder. In The Magicians, Quentin discovers that having magical powers is no more a guarantee of success than a degree from Harvard or Yale. As a reader, I guess I just like magic for its own sake, because it makes "real" life a little bigger, a little different, and a lot more interesting.

I'll leave you with one more nugget for thought: are there any Jewish kids at Hogwarts?


Jo said...

I like magic as much as the next librarian, but I prefer it in more subtle contexts. I liked The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry because the old aunt "reads" lace patterns like tea leaves. I also liked Sarah Addison Allen's Garden Spells because a character grows magic herbs and when she includes them in a recipe, strange and wonderful things occur.

By the way, my new favorite name is Brunonia.

Karen said...

I think Jo's definition is more fitting of the actual genre called "magical realism," Esquivel's "Like Water For Chocolate" being a very famous example of such. Roberta, on the other hand, likes..."realistic magic?" :) Characters who have a magical ability and yet are also confounded by human nature and/or the ways of the physical world. I don't read much fiction but what appeals to me about this trend in writing is that, even as a child, I figured it was easier to write sci-fi/fantasy if every aspect was limited only to your imagination. Creating boundaries, whether physical, spiritual, intellectual, or otherwise, creates the kind of tension that makes for a more compelling and relatable character, imho.

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