I don't generally read novels, or anything I'm reading for fun, with a pencil in hand, the way I do philosophical and religious texts, which I mark for later reference and use. I do, however, usually mark a few lines or paragraphs in most novels I read. Either because it is a particularly beautiful, apt, clever, or smart use of language or because it gives a great insight to the novel or its themes and I want to come back and quote it later in a blog post or something.
That said, I had a pencil with me almost constantly while reading this novel. I marked it up far more than most novels I read. Maybe more than any novel I've ever read.
Here are the passages that stuck out to me:
In Brooklyn reality had been empty and meaningless--whatever inferior stuff it was made of, meaning had refused to adhere to it. Brakebills was different. It mattered. Meaning--is that what magic was?--was everywhere here.
This was one of the early clues that the existential themes would dominate the novel. I am intrigued by this idea of meaning adhering, and not, to places. Are there places in your life like that?
This next one I thought was so amusingly written, that I immediately read it out loud to Michael, who had no idea who these characters were.
Quentin hadn't realized how hard-won Eliot's air of ludicrously exaggerated insouciance must be. That facade of lofty indifference must be there to hide real problems. Quentin liked to think of himself as a sort of regional champion of unhappiness, but he wondered if Eliot had him outclassed on that score, too.
. . . mundanity was epidemic. It was like a coral reef with the living vital meaning bleached out of it, leaving nothing but an empty colored rock behind.
In a stark contrast with my first excerpt:
The world had become smaller and somehow lighter--nothing meant anything, but what was meaning anyway but a burden that weighed them down?
This comes at an interesting moment at the close of a dinner party when they have discussed the topic of God and right before a main character makes a huge mistake. In the midst of coming to a realization of what he has done, he thinks the following, which are not his final thoughts on the subject, but revealing:
Magic wasn't going to solve everything. Couldnt' she see that? Couldn't she see that they were all dying, that everything was futile, that the only thing to do was to live and drink and fuck whatever and whomever while you still could?
Daylight was here, and with it had come the world of appearances and lies and acting like everything was fine.
When, suddenly, Quentin's greatest fantasy interrupts his lowest point, he begins to dream again:
Everything had been completely ruined and then completely redeemed in such rapid succession that he couldn't tell which state ultimately applied. But if you looked at it a certain way, what happened between him and Janet wasn't about him and Janet at all, or even him and Alice. It was a symptom of the sick, empty world they were all in together. And now they had the medicine. The sick world was about to be healed.
They were embarking on a grand adventure on the spur of the moment. Isn't that what it means to be alive, Goddamn it?
Yet, he still has reservations.
"Sure, but real life's not actually like that," Quentin went on, fumbling after what he was sure was an important insight. "You don't just go on fun adventures for good causes and have happy endings. You're not going to be a character in a story, there's nobody arranging everything for you. The real world just doesn't work like that."
There is some resonance here with one of the very first posts I ever wrote for this blog, "The Mythos of a Gen-X Male."
He had reached the outer limits of what Fun, capital F, could do for him. The cost was way too high, the returns pitifully inadequate.
I think Rowling captured this well. Prisoner of Azkaban startled you, because that series wasn't just going to be the fun and games of the first two books. The danger was going to a deeper level, as I wrote in my review of the film in 2004. Then, when Cedric Diggory died and Voldemort returned, you were confirmed in that fear. The final books got darker. And the closing volume was almost completely lacking in anything fun.
Then, the very moment that his fantasy is realized,
Looking back, in a philosophical frame of mind, it occurred to Quentin that he'd always thought this would be a happy day, the happiest day of his life. Funny how life had its little ways of surprising you. Little quirks of fate.
And now that he was here it would finally be all right. He didn't see how yet, but it would. It had to be. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, but hot tears poured helplessly down his cheeks, leaving cold tracks behind them. Against all his own wishes and instincts he got down on his knees and put his head in his hands and pushed his face into the cold leaves. A sob clawed its way out of him. For a minute he lost himself. Somebody, he would never know who, not Alice, put their hand on his shoulder. This was the place. He would be picked up, cleaned off, and made to feel safe and happy and whole again here. How had everything gone so wrong? How could he and Alice have been so stupid? It barely even mattered now. This was his life now, the life he had always been waiting for. It was finally here.
There was a time when this had been his most passionate hope, when it would have ravished him with happiness. It was just so weird, he thought sadly. Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted? Its groping hands so clumsy? He thought he'd left this feeling behind long ago in Brooklyn, or at least at Brakebills. How could it have followed him here, of all places? How far did he have to run? If Fillory failed him he would have nothing left! A wave of frustration and panic surged through him.
The danger would be going back, or staying still. The only way out was through. The past was ruins, but the present was still in play.
Jumping off this existential crisis in process, for a minute, there was a telling passage about a lovers' fight:
In a way fighting like this was just like using magic. You said the words, and they altered the universe. By merely speaking you could create damage and pain, cause tears to fall, drive people away, make yourself feel better, make your life worse.
Near the end, the characters encounter one of the gods of the fantasy world, basically a stand-in for Aslan. Then, all their doubts and questions about the divine come out in a series of questions directed at the god. The character Janet gets right to it:
"We human beings are unhappy all the time. We hate ourselves and we hate each other and sometimes we wish You or Whoever had never created us or this shit-ass world or any other shit-ass world. Do You realize that? So next time You might think about not doing such a half-assed job."
Back to the existential crisis provoked by Quentin's sense of narrative:
They were so close. They were almost home, they could still win it all if they could just figure out a way to push through to the end of the story. If they could gut it out through one more scene.
The contrast between Grossman and Rowling's views of narrative interest me. This quote is very much like her view. The story can get very painful and hard, but we are part of a story with meaning. Grossman's novel largely presents the opposite. It will be painful and hard, but there is no story, no meaning. He, of course, cops out at the end. So, maybe that's not really his view? Do the two sequels respond to this problem?
After much that disturbs in the novel, we are offered this one little bit of solace. Is it enough?
And those nice, surprisingly Pottery Barn-y curtains, the color of the stems of plants. They were coarse-woven, but it wasn't the familiar, depressing fake-authentic coarseness of high-end Earth housewares, which merely imitated the real coarseness of fabrics that were woven by hand out of genuine necessity. As he lay there Quentin's uppermost thought was that these were authentically coarse-woven curtains, woven by people who didn't know any other way of making curtains, who didn't even know that their way was special, and whose way was therefore not discounted and emptied of meaning in advance. This made him very happy. It was as if he'd been looking for these curtains forever, as if he'd been waiting his whole life to wake up one morning in a room in which those coarse-woven, stem-green curtains hung over the windows.
Real. Genuine. Authentic.
Later, he wishes he had never gone on adventure, never encountered magic.
Now he had answers, but they weren't doing what answers were supposed to do: they weren't making things simpler or easier. They weren't helping. . . . [He should never have done all the things in the story but should have remained mundane and depressed.] He would never have known the horror of really getting waht he thought he wanted. . . . Sure, you can live out your dreams, but it'll only turn you into a monster.
If those final two sentences I quoted are true, then I shudder with sorrow. Are they true?
Or is only this simpler, less disturbing claim the truth?
To live out childhood fantasies as a grown-up was to court and wed and bed disaster.
Completely unrelated to the existential crisis, I think, is this fun description of a glass of Scotch:
a bitter single malt Scotch that tasted like it had been decanted through the stump of an oak tree that had been killed by lightning.
I want me some of that.