Friday, November 09, 2007

The Magus

The Magus is one of those novels that is frustrating to review. Describing the plot seems to give away too much, but the plot and its conclusion isn't as important as the journey. However, as might be expected, describing the journey is fruitless since each person's reading experience will be different. I can detail my reaction, though, and hope that interest in material that could cause such a reaction will attract other readers.

Perhaps due to its creation history (written 1952, published 1966, revised 1977), this book doesn't fit neatly in any category. It's too advanced for a modern novel, but it doesn't possess the sly self-awareness of a post-modern novel. In some ways, it is a commentary on the failings of novels to address the ambiguity of reality, although its characters are never as blatantly unreliable as those in Nabokov's Pale Fire. It's as if the novel is in between stages, just like the protagonist of the novel.

The story is about a young man who goes to a remote Greek isle as a teacher in the 1950s. While there, he encounters an enigmatic figure (the Magus of the title), and afterwards his life is never the same. The Magus appears to be conducting an elaborate game, but once involved, the protagonist can no longer distinguish reality from the game and cannot even separate the supernatural from the mundane. When the game appears to end, the protagonist must reassemble his life and make sense of a world in which he no longer belongs.

At its most basic level, the story is one of initiation. The title itself is a reference to humankind's history of wise men and the rites necessary to become one. The Magus is attempting to introduce the protagonist into a larger world, and the game is his means of doing so.

The game is a labyrinth of allusions, symbols, and parables; however, the reader cannot tell if there is any underlying meaning. The Magus intentionally fills it with references to Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens, but using any of those references to impose a structure on the game only leads to dead ends. Once the protagonist (and reader) think they have a mental construct that makes sense of events, a new facet is revealed that destroys the construct and plunges events back into confusion. By the end, it is apparent there will be no easy answers: meaning must be created, not imported.

As I look at my struggles to review this novel, I am struck by the similarities to Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Both are filled with vast amounts of information, but even after the reader finishes, it is impossible to tell which bits of information were relevant and which were distractions. Some pieces of the stories managed to be both and other pieces were somehow neither: meaningful meaninglessness and meaninglessness meaning. If that's confusing, that's because the plot of both novels are attempts by humanity to impose meaning upon the chaos of the universe.

In paperback, this book is 650 pages long, but it was one of the fastest books I've ever read. Each time the plot stabilizes, a new twist is revealed that throws doubt on what has happened before. It took a few days to read the first half, and then a single sleepless night to finish. The book has much going for it: the characters are compelling, the story is well-plotted, the writing is elegant, and black humor provides occasional relief. This book will stick with the reader, and I cannot recommend it enough.


At 12:54 PM, November 09, 2007 , Blogger Vernunft said...

"If that's confusing, that's because the plot of both novels are attempts by humanity to impose meaning upon the chaos of the universe."

Well, wait, this sounds right up my alley. Where have you been all my life?

At 2:28 PM, November 09, 2007 , Blogger Freiheit said...

Notice I used the word "attempt." I think you would enjoy the book, but what it indicates about those attempts is less than uplifting.

At 2:13 AM, November 10, 2007 , Blogger Nick Milne said...

I still don't know what to think about John Fowles. The half of The Magus that I read (back before I lost the copy mid-read) was pretty good, The French Lieutenant's Woman was a boring pain in the ass, and The Collector was a solid delight. As this last one was actually his first novel, I'll choose to take this state of affairs as a sign of his irreversible decline in quality from the start of his career and more or less ignore the rest of his work. This will free up my time considerably.

Pale Fire is great, though. I would like also to recommend Nabokov's Bend Sinister, which won me over with a line about glaciers, if I remember correctly.

At 2:18 AM, November 10, 2007 , Blogger Nick Milne said...

And the Latin American masters are worth a look, too, if you like material that forces you to periodically ask just what, if anything, is actually going on. Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortazar and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez stand at the top of this heap, with Labyrinths, The Kingdom of this World, Blow-Up and Other Stories and One Hundred Years of Solitude being good places to start with each of them, respectively, though when it comes to Borges if you can find something of his that isn't worth dropping everything and reading at once I'll shoot you in the face and pretend it never happened.

At 8:06 AM, November 10, 2007 , Blogger Freiheit said...

Actually, The Magus was written before The Collector, but the latter was published first because Fowles thought no publisher would touch the former until he already had a successful novel.

I haven't read all the works by the Latin American masters that you name, so I'll have to add those to my list. They will have to wait until I finish a number of Rushdie novels, though.

At 10:12 PM, November 10, 2007 , Blogger Nick Milne said...

The Magus was earlier, eh? Very interesting. I'll have to put it on the list for the Christmas break.

And yes, get going on those Sou'Ams. Borges' A Universal History of Infamy is my favourite of his, but Labyrinths is much easier to find, and a better representation of his field of work anyway.

I look forward to Rushdie reviews, down the line.


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