High school gym had a lot of rules. Mr. Arbuse, his apt name a neologism of roast beef and cruelty, began every term with his stump speech:
“Dis is gym. Yuh cut, yuh fail.”
“If yuh late, counts as a cut. Yuh cut, yuh fail.”
“If yuh not in yuh spot when I call yuh name, yuh late; yuh late, counts as a cut. Yuh cut, yuh fail.”
“If yuh not wearing yuh yuniform, counts as yuh not in yuh spot. If yuh not in yuh spot when I call yuh name, yuh late. Yuh late, counts as a cut. Yuh cut, yuh fail.”
And so on. Scary, but, in fact, manageable, a series of reductions and equivalencies. And Mr. Arbuse had no rules about actual participation in sports. So I passed, even though I spent all year sitting in the bleachers talking about Metallica with Tommy Cassidy.
Cut (no pun intended) for a moment to the end of one of my own classes, twenty-five years later and two weeks ago. Titled “Secret Worlds: Fantasy Novels and their Fans,” the class reads Peter Pan, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and The Magicians by Lev Grossman, with watching the movies The Wizard of Oz, Coroline, and Pan’s Labyrinth. The books and movies serve as springboards and metaphors for first-year students’ own entrance into a new, unfamiliar place. There’s magic, of course, but the books mostly revolve around life as students understand it: new schools, powerful friendships, dealing with authority figures, and rites of passage.
This year, when I met him at a St. Louis reading for his new novel, The Magician King, Lev Grossman graciously and generously offered to have a Skype session with my class. And my students—both last year and this year—had very strong reactions to The Magicians, especially reading it last in sequence.
If you haven’t read The Magicians, you should. Critics frequently resort to Hollywood high concept mash-ups to describe it: Slate called it “Hogwarts-goes-to-Harvard”; the Village Voice called it “Less Than Zero plus Harry Potter.” They’re right, but they also both acknowledge that novel is more than that. Magic in Harry Potter doesn’t actually affect the world much: Mrs. Weasely has self-washing dishes, wands can kill by pointing and shooting, and newspapers have moving images, as though we Muggles have to do without such extravagancies (“You mean the dishes wash—BY THEMSELVES?” “You mean you have the power to kill from a distance WITH A SMALL HANDHELD OBJECT?” etc). But JK Rowling never really asks how magic—how the power for words to affect the world in immediate, literal, physical, palpable ways—would affect our inner and outer worlds and force us to ask hard questions in the absence of fairy-tale morality and the face of real-life ambiguity. Grossman does. I’d call it Magical Realism if that term didn’t already mean something else entirely.
And in our session, Lev Grossman was terrific, explaining (for what couldn’t be for the first or even tenth time) his relationship to the Narnia books, his initial motives and even doubts about the novel, and his recent meeting with Neil Gaiman, giving the impression that our course authors must loll away the afternoons over parchment and butterbeer.
For all his great and funny responses, though, two stand out. First, when asked about how he felt about an upsetting and unexpected development late in the novel (no spoilers—this is the Internet, after all), Grossman reveled that he himself didn’t quite understand what he had written when he wrote it, and that unlike other parts of the book, that section came quickly and without immediate introspection. At other points, Grossman similarly demurred, suggesting that his intentions weren’t entirely clear even to himself at the time, and that even now he’s still coming to understand exactly what he wrote .
This admission—which one student brought up later as a revelation—flies in the face of what many students are taught about books and their writers. Authors are not watchmakers; they don’t work in precise, mechanical ways and therefore don’t always have definitive answers about their books, or even their own motivations.
Yet the Mr. Arbuses of English have drilled into too many students that reading is a set of equivalences, a scavenger hunt for Symbols—or clues, keys, secrets, decoding the correct combination to open the gym locker of Authorial Truth. All stories become a series of equal signs: yuh cut, yuh fail. If yuh don’t see that duh green light in Duh Great Gatsby is hope fur duh American dream, it counts as a cut; yuh cut, yuh fail. If yuh don’t see dat duh white whale is an unobtainable goal, counts as not seein’ duh green light, counts as a cut, yuh cut, yuh fail.
In response to his recent blog post about advice for college writers, I asked Grossman what he would tell college readers. And his reply: he wants them to enjoy reading. Reading for school can take the fun out of it. And he’s right. The two responses—authors don’t have all the answers; enjoy reading—are intertwined: students hunting for the right answers and author’s intentions will detract from the one thing I do think authors intend: for readers to take pleasure in the reading experience. I worry that English classes instill Arbuse-ive values: that learning to read and write well and critically become versions of good behavior, sitting still, in uniform. Despite the convention of including a map in the inside cover of these secret worlds novels (The Magicians is no exception), Lucy Pevensie and Harry Potter have no roadmaps, no keys, and no immediate agendas to save the new world. Even Dorothy Gale doesn’t really understand where the Yellow Brick Road will take her until much later. When Lucy emerges from the wardrobe, Harry from his closet, Dorothy from her transported house, and The Magicians’ Quentin from ,well, Brooklyn, their worlds are bigger, not reduced. (OK, Alice [of Wonderland fame] does have a key, and Lyra does have a compass, but that’s for another entry). Quentin keeps looking for his purpose, his destiny, his Quest. But there isn’t one—not exactly, or at least not that he’s aware of as he’s experiencing it. At these moments, he’s less a character in a story and more of a person—and an adult.
Overall, students loved the talk and loved The Magicians, which I say in agreement with Grossman is very important to me. I don’t teach books that I don’t also love. Last year, one student was absolutely convinced that the Narnia-like books within The Magicians, called Fillory, and their imagined author, “Christopher Plover” (a quasi-JM Barrie more than CS Lewis), were real, declaring as evidence that she had, in fact, read them as a child. Googling (now acceptable as a gerund) only made matters worse, thanks to Viking/Penguin’s websites for the imaginary land and the equally imagined author.
It’s a testimony to how richly and deeply the Fillory lore runs through the books, and it made me appreciate that Grossman chose to write The Magicians INSTEAD of Fillory books. Despite any waxing about timelessness, Peter Pan and the Narnia books—and, already, Harry Potter—are really products of their time. Part of the point of The Magicians seems to be that you can’t go home again—not to your parents, and even to your stories. It’ something that college students learn too well, especially now, with their first winter break upon them. Showing up, in the right uniform, in the right place, on time—good enough for Mr. Arbuse—is really only the beginning. You also have to find your own answers—to your own questions. Literature, like life, is better than that.
Gym is not.
Time: Geez, I sat down and was interrupted at least six times for this one. I’m willing to call it an hour.
Coming soon: The only false note I detect in The Magicians is Quentin’s last name, “Coldwater.” More on why.
UPDATE 2/6/12: Here’s that blog on Quentin’s name: https://jessekavadlo.wordpress.com/2012/01/25/i-have-issues-with-fictional-characters-names/