THE MAGICIANS As Unwitting Military Allegory

Most of the reviews to date of Lev Grossman’s new novel THE MAGICIANS understandably liken it to a cross between HARRY POTTER and BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY, or a generalized version of kiddie fantasy and urban coming-of-age novel. And while I don’t disagree, because Quentin Coldwater does attend Brakebills (instead of Hogwarts), Quidditch and Harry Potter are referenced in the novel a few times, there are epic fantasy battles in the third part of the book, and Q and his pals do drink and drug and have sex a lot in New York after graduation, THE MAGICIANS gave off a different vibe to me, one that had nothing to do with boy wizards or the Odeon Cafe.

Instead, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that Grossman was – whether he intended to or not, and I suspect the latter – writing an allegory of military life, or at least one of several decades past. Quentin’s longing for Fillory as a boy could substitute as a different boy’s longing to escape a humdrum, misunderstood life for one of order, where he could be understood better; Brakebills is as good a stand-in for West Point or some other military academy pre-1970s as any – especially because Quentin is essentially drafted into the corps. But the kicker is the aftermath, what Quentin and his cohorts realize is Brakebills’ Big Lie: “No one would come right out and say it, but the worldwide magical

ecology was suffering from a serious imbalance: too many magicians, not

enough monsters.”

And suddenly, I remembered the preface of Shel Silverstein’s GRAB YOUR SOCKS!, the 1956 paperback edition of his collections of cartoons originally published by Stars & Stripes, the U.S. Army’s official newspaper. It opens with a protracted exchange about one soldier undergoing inspection, revealing he didn’t know if he’d qualified the previous year because he “was shooting at people.” The others laughed, but as Shel relates, it was a self-conscious sort of laughter:

The rest of us had never shot at people; we shot at bull's-eyes. We were part of what is now called "the new army"–Tharp had been part of the old one and in a few words he'd just summed up the difference between the two. There's been a lot written and drawn about that "other army"; about the guys who fought the wars with live ammo and read V mail and liberated towns and kissed French girls and caught bouquets and wore baggy pants and six-day growth of beard.

I've never known that army.

According to the books and movies, each platoon had it's O'Brien and Schwart and Trimarco, and Wong Lee and Rodriguez and Washington Jones. There was the old bristly seargeant, soft as butter inside, the fuzzy-cheeked West Point lieutenant trying to prove to himself that he wasn't afraid. There was the little wise guy from the Bronx, the mysterious tight-lipped loner from Chicago and the shuffling Tennessee hillbilly who broke every record on the firing range and played taps on the harmonica at lights out.

I've never been in a platoon like that.

The guys I knew were ordinary guys. With no war to fight, they dragged through two years, cleaning the grease trap, bugging out of detail and forgetting their general orders. They signed statements of charges for canteen cups, policed up the area, tried to wangle soft deals and waited for the rank that never came down. Their lives were a round of tent pegs, squat jumps and Maggie's drawers. Their great hope was making supernumerary–their only fear: full field inspections. . .

  This was the reality for G.I.s overseas when there was no war to fight in Korea, no action looming. And by the time Vietnam came along, it was too late, too catastrophic, too dead-end, too nightmarish. I won't give the game away too much, but let's just say that when Quentin has a chance to visit the Fillory he's always longed for, a fictional construct turned "real", things don't work out the way he thought they would.

  There's danger in reading too much into an author's work and finding parallels that probably never existed, but a) that's the fun and b) it also shows that the original universe of Harry Potter &#8211; extended just a few more years &#8211; would turn even darker than J.K. Rowling's vision by the end of the series. And maybe she, too, had some unwitting military allegory thing going on, and there's merit in teasing it out in greater detail.