'You can't just decide to be happy.'
'No, you can't. But you can sure as hell decide to be miserable. Is that what you want?'
The answer to this, as far as Quentin Coldwater is concerned, is a resounding 'YES!' - at any stage of his life. He makes Holden Caulfield look like a bundle of sunshine. He makes Charlie Brown resemble an embodiment of optimism and positivity. Eeyore the Donkey is brimming with life force compared to our perpetually unhappy hero.
'...You couldn't have everything. Or at least the available evidence pointed overwhelmingly to that conclusion.'
Not only will he always think of a cup as being half-empty, but he will drive himself crazy wondering who the hell drank half of it to make it so. Hand him his deepest dream on a silver platter - and five minutes later he will be whining in a decidedly disillusioned fashion about how it fails to make him happy. Disillusionment and dissatisfaction are how he operates.
If ennui were to be a superpower, Quentin Coldwater would have been Superman, propelled into space by the power of his constant negativity.
'All of it just confirmed his belief that his real life, the life he should be living, had been mislaid through some clerical error by the cosmic bureaucracy. This couldn't be it. It had been diverted somewhere else, to somebody else, and he'd been issued this shitty substitute faux life instead.'
In The Magicians Lev Grossman goes against the popular device of literature - the allure of wish fulfillment, the deep-rooted belief that once you find that secret place in life where you belong things will magically be alright and you will be happy.
Granted, he goes against the literary mainstream while at the same time using the obviously commercially successful formula of a young protagonist with a newly found magical ability who suddenly finds himself in an equivalent of a British boarding school (well, in this case, a college. In Upstate New York. But it's still a British boarding school, really). If you have been living under a rock for the last couple of decades, that's Harry Potter I'm alluding to here.
So it seems that Grossman tries to get out of mainstream while firmly staying in the commercially successful mainstream. Mmmmm-kay.
Anyhow, unlike what we are supposed to expect, Quentin, miserable and disillusioned in the quasi-grown-up way that quite a few teens seem to be, does not find happiness in his unexpected admission to Brakebills, a magical college. Apparently he learns that - suprise! - you cannot just be handed happiness, that you actually need to put some effort into it, and that you can easily poison anything, even a fairy-tale, if you approach anything from the vantage point of pseudo-sophisticated negativity.
'Every ambition he'd ever had in his life had been realized the day he was admitted to Brakebills, and he was struggling to formulate a new one with any kind of practical specificity.'
Actually, the aura of overly disillusioned ennui-infused pseudo-sophistication in the faux-adult way (the way that tends to overstate almost explicitly that it's SO NOT Harry Potter and the like) permeates this entire book, getting in the way of pacing, character development and ultimately many readers' enjoyment.
As Quentin mechanically stumbles through his four years of quasi-British education in the self-pitying perpetually drunken haze, the plot stammers all over the place, never picking up a consistent pace, never leading to the reader actually caring about what happens to this set of miserable characters. So many situations are introduced and incompletely dealt with, without much consequence and/or resolution. So many potentially interesting storylines are never pursued further, with Grossman choosing to focus on the less exciting parts of this story. And a belated infusion of plot about three quarters into the book, after a long and befuzzling journey through Quentin's magical education, comes way overdue and at this point fails to impress and, frankly, begins to irritate.
All this while Quentin, despite his apparently staggering intellect, acts like a frustratingly clueless idiot and makes you want to reach into the book and shake some sense into him. And all of this just to see him come to even greater depths of self-pity and annoying in their platitude 'revelations':
'He wasn't in a safe little story where wrongs were automatically righted; he was still in the real world, where bad bitter things happened for no reason, and people paid for things that weren't their fault.'
And with this deep realization, Quentin gets this timeless piece of advice that summarizes the entire point of this story in addition to the message that things tend to suck quite badly (insert sarcasm here if you'd like):
'You found out, didn't you? There's no getting away from yourself. Not even in Fillory.'
Hey, I do not mind reading about the characters who are childish and stupid and very self-centered. What I expect is that in a series of events (a.k.a. plot) they will actually grow and change and learn something - something to make me feel that it was worth reading the book for. Even Holden Caulfield seems to change and grow up a bit, despite his uber-teenageness. Quentin and his friends, on the other hand, do not appear to grow up in any way; they are contentedly stuck in the perpetual aimlessness and inflated self-pity, all while flaunting their oh-so-special disullusionment which reminds me of pointless drunk 'adult' college conversations that lead nowhere - and I'm left a bit annoyed and irritated by it all.
Anyway, 2.5 stars. Not a horrible book, but not that good either. Just kinda 'meh', honestly. It left me not really caring about what happened or what will happen next - and that's not really a good sign. Quentin can brood himself into oblivion - I don't care much.
'For just one second, look at your life and see how perfect it is. Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there's nothing else. It's here, and you'd better decide to enjoy it or you're going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever.'