In fantasy novels, those blessed with magical power often chose to become heroes.
In Ursula Vernon’s Castle Hangnail (suitable for children as young as four and at least as old as forty — our family read it aloud together and we all loved it), the protagonist is a child with prodigious magical gifts but limited training. She’s always trying to make the world a better place. The villain is a weaker mage who attempts to siphon off the hero’s power for her own nefarious ends.
But not in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.
A more accurate reflection of our current world, The Magicians shows wizards making the same sorts of choices as Ivy League graduates – greed and status prioritized over service. Characters celebrate their own brilliance by grabbing as much as they can from the world around them. With great power comes the chance to make money in finance.
I love having read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, but the experience of reading it was often cringe-inducing. The characters are awful, particularly the main protagonist. It’s compelling in the way of Bojack Horseman, a steady desire to see what happens, even while knowing that it won’t be good.
The protagonist, Quentin, is a single-minded young man out for glory. He’d planned to jaunt off to Princeton, in recognition of his stellar performance at New York City magnet schools, but he enrolls at a wizards’ academy instead. There, he steadily accrues magical prowess; he also maintains the selfish ethical nihilism of an embittered teenager.
At times, it’s clear that Grossman has knowingly made his protagonist despicable; at other moments, it wasn’t quite clear whether the author was aware. Quentin revels in the incel attitude that love is owed to him by the world in recognition of his determination and intellect. Quentin puts no effort into building relationships – instead, the author rewards him with the desire of flatly-portrayed women, just another trophy to be won.
Though Quentin begins the book bemoaning that a certain lady friend isn’t interested in having sex with him, he doesn’t remain celibate forever. But his same twisted worldview persists.
In Entitled, Kate Manne writes that
It’s a mistake to think that incels are primarily motivated by sex. Not only are some incels also interested in love (or some outward simulacrum thereof), but their interest in having sex with “Staceys” is at least partly a means to an end – the end being to beat the “Chads” at their own game. Sex thus promises to sooth these men’s inferiority complexes, at least as must as to satisfy their libidos.
Yet another mistake is to think that sex would provide a solution to an incel’s supposed problem. If an incel does start having sex, or gets into a relationship, who will he turn into?
A once-single incel may well become a female partner’s tormentor. Anyone can feel lonely. But a wrongheaded sense of entitlement to a woman’s sexual, material, reproductive, and emotional labor may result in incel tendencies prior to the relationship and intimate partner violence afterward, if he feels thwarted, resentful, or jealous.
In other words, an incel is an abuser waiting to happen.
In The Magicians, women are depicted as having personalities only insofar as they relate to Quentin. When Quentin’s ex-girlfriend sleeps with someone – a man who is kinder, more studious, a better wizard, and has spent weeks working closely on a project with her – it’s soon revealed that she had sex with him only to hurt Quentin.
And when Quentin feels lonely and adrift in the final pages of the novel, the author has a new romantic interest fly through his window – the woman whom Quentin had pined for in high school, whom he refused to help when she was herself distraught, who is now a powerful self-taught wizard and hopes only to serve as a queen alongside Quentin as king in a magical fairyland.
Quentin hates his parents – he dismisses their paltry hopes and dreams in a few short paragraphs, and never considers using his newfound powers to help them in any way.
Quentin is indifferent to the world – he uses his magic to score drugs and make money. What else would be worth doing? Other people haven’t worked as hard as he has, Quentin believes, or else they would have been successful, too.
And those few people who are better at magic than Quentin – blessed with more prodigious intellects or greater work ethics – are derided as either sexual deviants or friendless wimps, “so autistically focused … that even direct mockery bounced right off him.” As in the novels of Ayn Rand, there can only be one greatest man, and the best women will inevitably fawn over him.
Which is why The Magicians works so well. There’s a persistent meanness throughout. The characters are crude and cruel. Through the lens of fantasy tropes, The Magicians reflects our world.
If Wall Street’s “masters of the universe” could cast spells, what do you think they’d do?