(THIS BOOK REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS, as much as a book written in the ‘60s can be spoiled.)
I don’t read as much as I used to. I’d like to read more, but between my job as a property manager and my manuscript in the works, I just don’t have the time. So I find myself picking books that I think will broaden me more than the next thing by Neil Gaiman. I search out minority writers in fantasy and sci fi. I dabble in nonfiction. I try to read any “important” works I might have missed.
And a few weeks ago, I thought to myself, “Gee, it’s been awhile since I read any Real Literature.”
In case you’re not sure what I mean, Real Literature is the kind of book that my Harry Potter snubbing high school English teacher would have approved of. Straight fiction novels that are well written, weightier than “light reading”, with a hefty thematic topic like war or civil rights, or some existentialist crisis for the main character.
There are, of course, books of this kind that I like. I count The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien), The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Michael Chabon) amongst books I both remember fondly, and found influential. But you might already see the pattern. O’Brien writes buckets of blood and dances circles around reality. Atwood creates and explores an Evangelical Christian dystopian future. Chabon’s two main characters are chiefly employed as superhero comic creators, and one is an apprentice magician and escapist.
Even when I’m reading Real Literature, I habitually reach for something that brushes the fantastic. So perhaps it is no surprise that this time I picked up The Magus, by John Fowles. And perhaps it is no surprise that I think it was a waste of time.
I’ll start with the positive, and confess that the middle of this book was satisfying. The main character, Nicholas Urfe, is subjected to a bizarre psychological experiment cum performance art piece — the godgame. He is lied to repeatedly by a troupe of characters hired and masterminded by a wealthy eccentric, Maurice Conchis. Nicholas is regaled with long tales of Conchis’s (sometimes-real) life, confused by the characters appearing and disappearing through stage trickery, seduced and rejected by a pair of gorgeous twins, and is at last kidnapped, drugged, bound and gagged, and made to stand as judge in a trial of himself as he is read a thorough (and thoroughly embarrassing) psychological description of himself.
But the start is a bore. Nicholas Urfe has moped his way through life. He doesn’t fit in well with his own parents, he feels stifled by the British school system as first a student and then as a teacher, he fancies himself a poet but never puts forth the effort necessary to write anything decent. Nicholas is an unreliable first person narrator, a misogynist, a classist, and a racist. He’s unsociable, and either hates or devalues everyone, including himself.
Nicholas spends the first fifty pages seducing (possibly raping — consensual sex isn’t usually accompanied by tears) and then abandoning a young woman named Alison, who is somehow both plain and unbearably sexy, with “…a characteristic bruised look; a look that subtly made one want to bruise her more.” Then Nicholas flees the boredom of England for the boredom of a sparsely populated Greek isle, Phraxos, where he teaches at a boarding school. He meets Conchis. He falls in love with one of the twins. He strings Alison along anyway, until he dumps her after a trip with her to Parnassus.
A few weeks later, Nicholas gets word that Alison committed suicide.
So it’s understandable that by the time Nicholas is punished and humiliated by Conchis and his unorthodox troupe, I was more than ready to see him punished and humiliated. Nicholas is left handcuffed to a chair and gagged while the characters all come in wearing fantastic masks and costumes. The room itself is underground, painted as if for some kind of arcane ritual. I’m on the edge of my seat.
And I am nothing but disappointed.
As soon as they have paraded in, the characters pull off their costumes and masks. They all pretend to be psychologists. They shrink Nicholas. They leave him tied up while the beautiful English twin makes love to a black man (oooh boy, 1960s race relations, huh?). They drug Nicholas again and release him on top of a mountain at the edge of Athens. Nicholas wanders back to Phraxos, and then back to England, all the while trying to deduce the real identities of Conchis and his troupe.
Then Nicholas learns that Alison’s suicide — and all the letters he had confirming it — were part of the godgame. And the godgame isn’t over. Alison is alive after all.
The last hundred and fifty pages consist of Nicholas’s hunt for Alison — his strings still pulled by Conchis and his troupe all the while. You would think Nicholas would be desperate to apologize, but no. He wants nothing more than to wring apologies from Alison. And in the end Nicholas finds Alison, slaps her, and emotionally arm-wrestles her into his own web of lies, abuse, and trickery; his own godgame.
This is the original ending. A revised edition of The Magus came out in the ‘70s, reportedly with a different ending, but I don’t care to read it. I get the feeling it isn’t just Nicholas Urfe who’s a bigot and misanthrope, but Fowles himself. He spends 600 dense pages teasing us with fantasy and mystery and giving us lies. He’s so smug about it, he can’t help but include a two-page summary of the thematic content in the form of a fairy tale, which spells out the point.
The Magus is the story is of one man hounding another with doubts, until the whole world seems a farce and the victim becomes a new manipulator, a new magus. It is the birth of a narcissist — not one of Dr. Twenge’s children-called-special, but a real narcissist — a soulless manipulator, a monster without a conscience. Poor Alison with the bruise-able face is destined to be his victim, his narcissistic supply. It’s a poor ending to tack onto a thick tome full of references to Shakespeare, the Marquis de Sade, and acclaimed fine artists. It’s an odd ending to tack onto such a pointedly literary work, when real narcissists aren’t really capable of understanding art. It’s outdated psychology, it’s frequently boring and repetitive, and it’s more than a little revolting.
The obvious comparison is to Lolita. But while Humbert Humbert may be an unrepentant offending pedophile, at least Vladimir Nabokov doesn’t try to suggest a lust for children is somehow nobly attained at the end of a long and difficult mental journey.
I’m not offended so much that this book was written — the 1960s was long ago, and morally primitive by today’s standards. But why the heck is The Magus still well-considered as Real Literature?