Does this ever happen to you? You’re reading a book and it is holding your interest, but nothing too mind shattering. Until you get deeper into it and you feel something in yourself slowly changing. Call it a metamorphosis. Or a door opening. Or a blooming in a hitherto unfruitful garden in the mind.
Imagine my surprise when I experienced this very thing yesterday when I finished Lev Grossman’s second installment (I am desperately hoping there will be a third at this point, though I am not sure if I can take another emotional blow- but more about that anon. I love saying anon.) in the Magicians series? Or is it called the Fillory series? I can’t find it easily on his blog (which I almost got stuck in right now).
I wrote about the first book in the series, The Magicians, in a previous post. I liked it well enough though no earth shattering, emotionally turbulent revelations. It was the perfect book to read on an absurdly long trek of our massive train ride last summer, but that’s about it.
So. Thinking the sequel would be as suitable for Christmas vacation as its predecessor was for the summer one, I decided to kick off my vacation reading with it. And it was totally delivering. Quentin was back with Eliot and the irascible Janet (though she doesn’t get much play in the second book). And Julia. Julia, of the left behind.
Julia. Even saying her name makes my heart ache.
But I don’t want to spoil anything by going into too much plot details. Suffice it to say, when the book begins, the above quartet are the Kings and Queens of Fillory, just like Peter, Edmund, Lucy and Susan were in Narnia. However, Quentin is once again dissatisfied with his lot and seeks something else, bless him. Fortunately for him, or unfortunately for him, depending on how you look at it, he gets his wish.
Intertwined with their new quest, are chapters that tell Julia’s back story and everything she went through and gave up for magic.
And that is where the big stone in my stomach began to form, the realisation that at the end of the day, that we can only judge ourselves by what our stories have left behind. Or let me be more clear. Quests, or what we like to call in the real world, life, strips us bare little by little. As we continue along our path it takes things away: people, things, perceptions of ourself, our grand illusions of possibility. What is left is the kind of hero we are (I mean this in the sense of hero of our own story). Are we still standing? Can we live with the loss? Are we bitter or grateful? Can we deal with our own mistakes and flaws with humility or is our dragon pride eating us up bit by bit?
The character of Quentin and his perennial dissatisfaction with his lot is predicated on the all too common feeling that reality will never live up to the adventure and fantasies of our childhood stories. Having grown up with my nose in a book, you would think I would relate. In fact, I know many of my adult friends who recognised themselves a little too much in Quentin.
However, I’ve never felt the need to go to Narnia nor have I ever grieved my Muggle status. It was never the adventures that I wanted to have. I wanted to be me, but better. I wanted to have the characteristics that make it possible for adventures to happen. Courage. Intelligence (the envy I feel for the ferocious intelligence of Julia and Quentin is palpable). And let’s face it- a type of storybook beauty, though this wasn’t as important as the intelligence thing. I wanted (and if I’m honest with myself) want to be better than I am.
So at the end of the book, when the heroes have to pay the price of being the hero and are left stripped bare, what is left? Is your infrastructure stronger? Or are you a shanty town made out of corrugated cardboard self-delusions?
This book is the most coming of age book I have ever read, although not the traditional kind that depicts that painful metamorphosis from childhood to adolescence. Grossman chooses to sketch another coming of age (and I believe there are many in our life), the one where we are indoctrinated into the world of adulthood with all of its loss, its flaying of childhood self-delusions and hopefully with the revelation of a stronger core.
And like any other metamorphosis, it is extremely painful but also beautiful.
So I grieve. I grieve for Grossman’s characters because as the god of his world, he doesn’t pull any punches. And because I am scared that at the end of the day, my infrastructure will be found wanting; that I am not living up to my adventure with the necessary grace and panache.
Hmm. Perhaps that should be my one and only new year’s resolution…