Lev Grossman’s story of adult magicians, dimension-hopping, and time manipulation is one of those novels that’s written in such a way that it can’t fail to resonate with just about everyone, at least in some way. It certainly did with, and in more ways than I expected. I couldn’t help but get drawn in to the twisted adventure that took childhood fantasies, turned them upside down, and then snapped them in half.
But what surprised me was how much I could empathize with Julia.
A minor character in many ways, appearing in only a handful of scenes, Julia was a friend of Quentin’s who did not, for whatever reason, get the privilege to attend Brakebills and learn the art of magic alongside her friend. She was invited, tested, and found wanting, and that brief glimpse into a larger and more incredible world unhinged her. Her memories of the exam and magic were not properly erased, so she remembered what she was meant to forget, and taught herself some small amount of magic as her life fell apart around her, always yearning to be what she had been told she could never be. Denied, and tortured by the knowledge of that denial and glimpses of what she was missing.
It was the kind of thing that had so many parallels with my own life, I couldn’t help but feel for her.
I’m not an unintelligent person. I have an almost obsessive craving for knowledge and learning, have been known to go on non-fiction reading binges that last for months, sometimes read textbooks for fun. You wouldn’t know it, though, to look at my life’s accomplishments, or lack thereof, especially when compared to the accomplishments of those I associated with when I was the age that Julia was in the book. I graduated high school with an apathetic lack of honours. I didn’t go to university, being unable to afford it. I currently work in a call centre, booking travel plans for people who will forever have more money than I do.
The people around me were and still are a glimpse into what I feel I can’t have. I went to a high school with 3 levels of education: standard, AP (Advanced Placement), and IB (International Baccalaureate), and I had friends in the IB program. These courses were tough, demanding, earning you university credits before you’d even left high school. I did a few AP classes myself, but never wrote the exams to get an early university credit myself, my parents unwilling to pay for it. I was certainly able to keep up with the work required, of that I’m still sure, but that was a world unavailable to me (between parents unwilling to pay extra and a screw-up with my transfer into that high school where I lost the chance to do the prerequisite courses). I watched friends just as smart as me get further and further ahead.
Nearly all of those friends how have university degrees. The one who doesn’t is currently training to be a medical laboratory technician, doing those courses alongside people who already had degrees from university themselves, getting higher marks than nearly all of them in every course.
And me? I’m just sitting here in a call centre, thinking that so much of my life could have been so much better, I’d be so much closer to my goals, so much happier with myself, had I not been one of those people who was good but not good enough. Not driven enough, not obsessive enough, not confident enough to carve out my own place, instead choosing the path of least resistance and just opting to stay out of the way while everyone else did their own carving.
For these reasons, I felt a connection to Julia, though she didn’t play a particularly large role in the story. She was surrounded with people who were very much like her, until that one divisive event that pushed others ahead and held her back, and unlike other people who failed the Brakebills entrance exam, she remembers it all, can still do magic, and is very much aware of what she had the potential to be and yet failed to become.
It was hard-hitting, and something that a lot of people can undoubtedly relate to in their own lives. Especially those who tended to be rather academically gifted, used to being near or at the top in at least one area, and those who know that they’re capable of doing so much more than what they’re currently doing or have done in the past. It’s a torturous niggling thought, tiny but all-consuming, the kind of unanswerable “what if” question that keeps us awake at night and lamenting that we’re not better educated, earning more money, having mastered more skills. If only we’d done something different, though we rarely know just what that something is.
I think this is why I enjoy reading about academically-gifted characters. I have a soft spot for them, as well as for stories that take place within a school setting. I get to spend my time associating with a character who is in a potion to do what I couldn’t, and I get to live vicariously for a little while. They speak to the me I wish I was.
Not so much relating to Julia in particular but with the group of people who Quentin associated with was also rather easy, and was crystallized in a single line of Penny’s.
All of human literature could just be a user’s guide to the multiverse!
Most of the random theoretical discussions presented in the book were of the sort that my friends and I would often debate back in high school, and indeed, some of those debates still come up today, and are just as much fun to throw back and forth. Possibly more fun, now, because our debating skills and knowledge have increased over the years. But the idea of fiction being true on another plane was a hot topic for my small group of friends in high school, debates going back and forth about the logistics and whether or not it was possible. We wondered whether stories that took place in the future were cases of time being non-linear, and the ‘creator’ of such fiction had the idea come through the ether into their minds, time-traveling idea transference. One of us on the “against” side of the debate once said, “Our future can’t be both like Star Trek and Planet of the Apes,” which is one of the ways that prompted us to start bringing multiverse theory into it. A little bit of a cheap way to integrate anything, but hey, in theory, it works.
So reading The Magicians was a real trip into my past, and something that both took my personal insecurities and gave me hope that they don’t matter anyway. After all, Quentin goes to magic college and travels to another reality, and then gets tired of it and uses his influence to get a high-pay do-nothing job at a major company. An idealized version of what a lot of us wish we could do, admittedly (who wouldn’t want to get paid large sums of money for playing video games on a big-screen TV?), but all this fantastic potential had played itself out for him, and he was content to leave it all behind and do something mundane, solid and real. Not quite as poignant as “Give a man freedom and he’ll beg for his chains,” but still noteworthy. Give a man all his childhood fantasies come true and he’ll still find himself yearning to be a highly-paid business exec.
So maybe those years of my life weren’t wasted when they were spent. And maybe even if I’d done every one of those “what if”s I torture myself with, in the end, I’d still be working at a call centre and wishing for something else.
And maybe, like Julia, that potential had to go to waste to land her in a position where she could become something even greater than what she ever imagined for herself to begin with. Life’s weird that way.