Recently finished two books that received a lot of hype in their respective circles: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Dutton Books, 2012) and The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Viking, 2009). I feel foolish admitting this, but only upon finishing the books did I realize they’re both metafiction, which means that they’re books which are about books (or a book series in the case of The Magicians). Despite the wide difference in tone, I thought it would be a cool mental exercise to pick apart the way in which the authors used the concept of meta to shape their characters and their world.
Usual disclaimer: Presume everything after this point is a spoiler.
Hazel Grace’s situation is a bit of a doozy for me. She has such a fanatical insistence on finding out what happens to characters from An Imperial Affliction in addition to her already hipster-like internalization of the book. Hazel Grace doesn’t care if nobody knows about the book, or if her parents and her friends don’t get the book, she’s liked it before it was cool. It may never become cool and she’ll still like it.
I couldn’t help flinching, though, as soon as the possibility of her going to Amsterdam to meet Peter Van Houten, the author of AIA, became more than a pipe dream. Even though I would read an author’s thoughts about his/her work, I personally wouldn’t be able to muster the gall to ask the same questions that Hazel Grace wants to ask. I was embarrassed on her behalf, if that makes sense? To paraphrase Van Houten (and John Green himself), the author has no further obligation to the reader beyond what’s already in the text. I don’t believe they’re being jerks by stating that, maybe they don’t even know the answers themselves or maybe it’s not something they want to explore any further.
At the same time, I agree with John Green that the writer’s intention is irrelevant. Literature as a field of study would not exist if humanity as a whole disagreed with that notion. There’s something in our collective wiring that loves asking questions about stories as much as we love the stories themselves. While there’s nothing fundamentally wrong about Hazel Grace wanting to know what happened to Anna’s mother, the Dutch Tulip Man, and Sisyphus the Hamster, those concerns felt like they were generated by immature thinking. Does it really matter? And let’s say that she did get those questions answered, where and when do the questions stop?
With literary novels, I always read the work with the presumption that the author is offering us a mere slice of these characters’ lives that we need to know. There’s always more story left to tell, but maybe those need to be told by somebody else, or even not at all. In a sense, I do feel bad for the authors/storytellers who are consistently harangued to continue with their stories just to please the mob. (See: J.K. Rowling) It’s one thing if the author feels that their narrative is still unfinished and so decide to continue, but I feel it’s another thing to do it because it’s what others expect from them.
The Magicians also covers a similar conflict between the reader and the author/work, except in this case, it’s even more complicated since the fantasy world in the book turns out to be real.
Quentin Coldwater’s relationship with the world of Fillory is even more complex and layered than Hazel Grace’s with An Imperial Affliction. For Q, Fillory is the ideal, the fulfillment of his every dream, the paradise of his imagination. He’s never been satisfied with his life in Brooklyn, but returning to Fillory through the books, he’s able to capture and hold on to that specter of happiness that’s always eluded him.
My first attempt at reading this book, back around the time of its initial publication, was a struggle. I couldn’t get past the selfishness and sense of entitlement of Quentin and the other characters. So, how was I then able to breeze through this book in two days this week? The book didn’t change; has my thinking and worldview changed so much since my first read through then?
Fillory is the embodiment of everything that this reality isn’t. Ask any reader, and I guarantee that you’ll get someone saying that the reason why they read books is because reading provides an escape. It’s no coincidence that it’s a fantasy book trope to use a portal to travel to the Other land. For us, the books themselves are the portal, they’re the way we transition from this reality to the one we’re escaping to. No matter how bad the Otherland (be it Narnia, Oz, Hogwarts, or Fillory) may be, it’s still vastly preferable to the reality that we’re facing now. Even Harry Potter would rather face the Dementors and Voldemort and possible death and dismemberment than be left behind in that room under the stairs. What these other worlds offer is a fighting chance; they may be dark and full of dangers but most of them also give us a chance to defend ourselves, be it through magic or physical prowess, or at the very least, companions to help us in times of need. It wouldn’t be too much of a fantasy world if one should find himself/herself outclassed, outnumbered, and at a disadvantage.
Because Fillory (surprise surprise) doesn’t end up any better than the rest of Quentin’s reality, it would be easy to take a nihilistic attitude and postulate that even paradise (or heaven) aren’t worth the effort we’re taking to get there. This reality is all that there is, be happy or not it doesn’t matter ’cause we’re all going to die anyway. I know I don’t subscribe to that thinking, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t think Lev Grossman believes that either. Because, in the end, Quentin does return to Fillory, despite all its flaws, despite having a generally okay if bland life in New York. Given his situation, I don’t blame him for changing his mind and going back either.