I was in my freshman-year dorm room. It was late, probably approaching midnight. I was working through nucleophilic aromatic substitution in Morrison and Boyd when one of the sophomore women in the triple across the hall shouted, cheerily but quite loudly:
I don’t have time to have sex: I’ve got Biochemistry!
“Yep,” I nodded to myself as I cheerfully turned back to organic chemistry. “That pretty much sums up this place.” David Mamet once referred to his alma mater as “sex camp”; Swarthmore was Liberal Arts camp where sex replaced archery and canoeing.
The best part of Lev Grossman’s book trilogy The Magicians is a subplot in which magic — the wonders of Harry Potter and Narnia — is seen from the outside as a sort of miraculous heroin rush, an infusion of power and force that makes everything wondrous. Grossman’s world has a college for magic — Brakebills — but magic is studied with even greater intensity and desperation in a network of dingy, underground safe houses populated by addicts, criminals, perverts, demons, and other rejects who won’t, or can’t, give up the dream.
The television adaptation (SYFY/Netflix) takes this metaphor and extends it vastly, turning it into an extended study of five young New Yorkers and their reaction to higher education and all that entails. We have, for example, Kady, a tough girl from the Bronx who is as smart and accomplished as anybody, and if she’s had to do some things she’s not proud of, if she’s had to commit some crimes, even, it was only what she had to do to save her mother and to survive. The school, on the other hand, sees a character defect, and out she goes.
Or, take Penny. In the books, he’s Ron Weasley with the serial numbers filed off, and he exists to show us that the Potter-Weasley friendship is an illusion: in realist mode, those boys would have always hated each other. In the adaptation, Penny is South Asian, aloof and always watching from the outside; he’s cool because he’s always his own spectator. He sees the faculty clearly, and sees that to them he’s just another part of another class, and next year there’s be yet another class so, for them, there’s little point in opening their eyes. He knows the teachers are wrong.
Margo is Manhattan: rude, greedy, arrogant, destructive, and indomitably effective. Elliot’s the tormented, talented aesthete who moved to New York from some comfortable hellhole in the Midwest. Alice’s parents are academics who probably met at Columbia (or possibly CUNY), now teach in the Berkshires, read all the best child-rearing books and never had time to figure Alice out. The hero, Quentin Coldwater, is just a shlump who does well in school; he means well but seldom has any clear idea of what to do or how to act.
Then there’s Julia, who was Quentin’s girl next door, who was always just a little better than Quentin at school and at life. But when they apply to grad school, she inexplicably fails the Brakebills entrance exam. Once Julia knows that magic is real and Brakebills exists, her fallback school (Yale) is worthless, and Julia dives into the world of safe houses to learn what Higher Education denied her. She dreams, endlessly, that someday the Dean will recognize that they made a mistake and will welcome her to grad school after all.
All these people are deeply, deeply enmeshed in the study of magic. It consumes them — in one case, literally. It defines their life. It’s totally grad school. Grad school problems are all over the place: Elliot, for example, lands a really good job (High King) before graduation, and trying to finish his thesis while holding down the job of his dreams is tearing him apart.
When it’s just you and the molecule and it’s not going well, the world can be a very bleak place.
Uniquely, the series captures the way this can be so differently true while winding up with the same driving obsession. Quentin loves magic; fair enough. Margo loves its power. Elliot adores beauty and detests unnecessary work; for him, magic is the best way to a really good Amatriciana and an even better wine to pair it with. And Julia: Julia just has to know stuff: how it works, how to do it, and what’s behind the curtain.
Race, gender, class: it’s all there, but we don’t need it for differentiation and, even if we weren’t divided by them, we still wouldn’t be on the same page. Yet to the greater world, they’re all this tiny cadre: esoteric, incomprehensible, privileged and interchangeable.