Returning to Brakebills for the Fifth-Year Anniversary

Grab your iron key and let’s go back to Lev Grossman’s magic school.

Five years ago, I read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and did not think that it was about magic.

Nor did I think about how much of the book dealt with the consequences that come to people who want to live in a nominally fictional world; though, given the amount of time I have spent in and around Brakebills since, I should have paid more attention.

Instead, these were the emails and messages I sent to all of my friends:

“You have to read this book. It’s the only book I’ve ever read that’s actually about what happens when you complete your education and have a skill set that the world doesn’t want.”

Sometimes I wrote “when you get a MFA,” since that is what I had just done, exchanging my terminal degree in manipulating reality for a desk job, because I found — much as Quentin does, in the story — that there isn’t much call for magicians in the real world, and there’s probably already too many of them.

Two years later I read Grossman’s sequel, The Magician King, and could not believe that I was so lucky to find a character like Julia Wicker, the magician who is still trying to make it work, the one surviving on temp jobs and abysmal living conditions and her own dedicated practice, done after hours in the company of friends whom she only knows online. (I did not think The Magician King was particularly about magic either. Instead, it was about the work that comes two or three years after graduation, when you decide you don’t want the desk job and you want to put your skills into actual use. The moment you say goodbye to the real world, the one that has no place for you, and move into a terrible apartment and spend hours perfecting your technique. The first biggest gamble and challenge of your adult life, though no one tells you that, at the time.)

On August 5, 2014, Lev Grossman will complete his trilogy with The Magician’s Land. I had thought about Brakebills often in the interim, had recommended The Magicians to everyone I knew, but I had not actually read the book straight through in years.

So I took The Magicians off the shelf. The paperback copy I had to own, after reading the one at the library; the second edition, the one where Alice’s hair goes dark. And I went back to Brakebills’ campus, for the fifth-year anniversary.

Photo by Ray Sawhill (cropped)

I always forget that the students begin the story as teenagers. They seem to have skipped the tail end of childhood, in the way that smart, ambitious, or extraordinarily-focused people often do.

However, I think a bit of “oh, right, they’re so young” is natural at any academic reunion.

I’m not going to recap the plot, since part of the purpose of me going back to Brakebills is to convince you to go on your own, the mission of every good alumna. So, instead, I will tell you why you should go to Brakebills, if you’ve never been.

This school is for anyone who’s ever felt too smart, or too frustrated, or too sad. It’s for people who love speculative fiction and fantasy, but it’s also, in a way, for the people who hate it. It’s for the person who tried playing Dungeons and Dragons once, realized the game mechanics made it impossible to lose, and lost interest. It’s for the person who saw the Star Trek reboot and complained afterwards because the characters weren’t behaving intelligently.

Neal Stephenson says that in good speculative fiction, “intelligence is just how people behave.” That’s why The Magicians works: the characters think. They act like students at a magic college in upstate New York in the early 21st century, with all of the accumulated years of human history and culture behind them, might actually act.

The Brakebills students live both in this world and in the magical world. They have iPhones. They’ve all read Tolkien and Rowling, but they’ve also read philosophy and Shakespeare and comic books and Reddit. When they discover something that does not fit in with the natural world, they don’t accept it as truth — they push back. They get angry when they enter a parallel universe that is half medieval, half Victorian, because the economics — not to mention the awkward juxtaposition of pre- and post-Industrial Revolution manufacturing — don’t make sense.

Although The Magicians is often dubbed “Harry Potter for adults,” the difference between Brakebills and Hogwarts is striking. The lack of attention paid to real-world culture and history, for example, always made the Hogwarts students seem a bit juvenile and unformed. To get into Brakebills, after all, you have to pass a calculus test; Hogwarts students aren’t taught any math at all. Of course, Rowling occasionally slipped up, like the time she described Professor Umbridge as wearing an “Alice-ribbon” even though none of the characters, except possibly Hermione, would have ever read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Photo by Ray from LA

And now Alice. It’s hard, when you’re reading a book that includes references to everything from Narnia to The Castle of Llyr to The Thirteen Clocks, not to mention Blackmoor, Middle-Earth, and every fantasy kingdom in between, to not take a precocious young student named Alice as a Lewis Carroll parallel. (It didn’t help that the first edition included an editor’s error that described Alice as a blonde who hid behind her hair; later editions give her straight black hair, which is jarring to my persistent mental picture of Alice as a perpetually brilliant, perpetually disheveled young magician with a Tenniel mane.)

But Alice is so much more than this. In a genre where most female characters are sidekicks or White Mages, Grossman gives us Alice, and Julia, and Janet, not to mention Jane and Poppy and all the rest of them — for once equal parity between male and female characters, with each woman specifically and uniquely drawn.

Alice is a magician and a slob and a dedicated student; she is a bit overweight, she is shy in social situations and quick to mock, she grows and matures and changes as the book progresses. Compare this to Hermione, whose predominant attribute is “the smart one.” Or, if you prefer, compare Alice to her Brakebills classmate Janet, who is performative and controlling and fragile, who cares about style and presentation, who is a loyal friend and a group leader, who also grows and changes before the book ends.

If you appreciate intersectionality, you’ll note all of Grossman’s subtle details: the casual understanding that of course Brakebills includes queer students and students of color and students with disabilities. Also: students with depression, students with addictions, students with social integration issues. Brakebills is a safe space for everyone.

Photo by Kevin Jarrett

The Magicians wouldn’t be what it is without its most important section: what happens after graduation. The world that has no use for you, and all your training.

When I went back to my own college a few years after I had left, I watched the women’s choir singing complicated, articulate motets and was frustrated that my adult life had lost its connection to even this small piece of magic. Where was the place where I could use what I had learned?

And then, that brilliant description of the friend group that forms in New York, during that period of life where the friends themselves define all other responsibilities and obligations. I had not yet had that experience, when I read The Magicians right after graduation; I was too busy with the desk job and my own, after-hours Julia work to make friends. Now I do. Now I’m in the center of it. All of us trained magicians on one side or the other of turning 30, some of us still practicing our technique, few of us getting to use our hard-won skills.

(How did Grossman predict the types of closely-bound friendships that would form during a recession, where everyone’s a bit underemployed but all the money goes towards good wine, where there’s a party every weekend and we pass our small bits of disposable income around and around, everyone taking turns to fund each other’s Kickstarters or gallery openings, everyone making sure to see the plays or download the albums or read the articles?)

Photo by jessicahtam

And lastly: on Fillory. The magical kingdom, the Narnian analogue, the heart’s desire. If there’s one element that makes The Magicians a game-changer, it’s that it forces us to take these worlds seriously.

It forces us to realize that a kingdom like Fillory means killing people, not to mention bunnies and lizards and talking bears, over and over; that it means blood and death and fear and viscera just as much as it means kings and queens and glory. More so. That the fiction of being an ordinary boy who wakes up one day to find that he has been chosen to visit a perfect, magical land, and that everything he needs has been inside him the entire time, is so much fiction that it falls apart at the touch, like a paperback too often read. For Bilbo and Harry and Peter and Dorothy and Alice and Quentin and all of us.

I am so excited to read The Magician’s Land. And, if you haven’t yet enrolled in Brakebills, there’s still time before August. Thank you, Mr. Grossman, for giving us these worlds and writing the truest story I’ve ever read, even though it is ostensibly about magic.

All photos CC BY 2.0. Photographer links:

David Gallard

Ray Sawhill

Ray From LA

Kevin Jarrett