Saturday, January 7, 2017

This Will Not Save Your Life

"Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed." -Lev Grossman, The Magicians

When I was twenty-four, I wanted to kill myself. Or maybe I was twenty-five. Could have been twenty-six. I'm honestly not sure. I've never been very good at dating things in my memory, especially when it's been shrouded in the haze of clinical depression. It was a rough time and I honestly only got through it because I loved my cat so much. It wasn't that I thought no one would take care of him when I was gone, because he was an awesome and everyone loved him. People would have been lining up to take him. It was that I honestly didn't want to leave him. He was the only thing I could muster up emotion for.

Depression is so hard to describe because it's a shapeshifter. It's feeling nothing and everything and thinking you've found the terrible truth of the world and knowing you're the stupidest creature to ever walk the planet. I realized I was sinking in the Swamp of Sorrows while I was sitting on my bed, petting my cat and planning out my suicide. Casually. Like making a grocery list. I got hung up on it when I thought about blood getting in Cloud's white fur.

I say all of this because I get Quentin. He is, at times, heroically unlikable and that's one of the things I love the most about this story.

Now's as good a time as any for a spoiler warning. For the first season of the show and the first book.

Quentin lives in this cloud of depression, failing to really connect with anyone because he seems to think he's both better than everyone and the complete fucking worst. Simultaneously. He goes from a mundane but privileged life to being magic school and is still, always, constantly underwhelmed. He, an apparently straight boy, is mildly insulted when he discovers Eliot is gay and not into him. He goes for girls who are, in his mind, "good". They're smart and pretty and, in a way, chaste. And he ignores girls who do not fit that type. And he is always looking for the thing that will make life worth living. Magic school doesn't do it, so he seeks meaning in Fillory, a magical land analogous to Narnia or Wonderland. And when he discovers that Fillory is just as dirty and flawed as the "real" world, he is disappointed and slips back into his depression. He is literally having a magical adventure in another world and can't get over the fact that he might not be the main character. That maybe there is no such thing as a main character at all.

It reminds me a bit of Red Shirts by John Scalzi. A story of side characters who have to deal with the fallout of the main characters' actions. Quentin is forever trying to get to the forefront of things, only to discover that he's not special, he's not chosen, and he's not the smartest. Even Eliot, the ever-drinking, the ever-high, the silver-tongued bitch, is a better magician than him without even trying.

That's one of the best and worst traits of this story, both book and TV show. The characters are all desperately flawed.
"But I'll tell you something: I think you're magicians because you're unhappy. A magician is strong because he feels pain. He feels the difference between what the world is and what he would make of it. Or what did you think that stuff in your chest was? A magician is strong because he hurts more than others. His wound is his strength." -Lev Grossman, The Magicians
And they have to be. If they weren't, they wouldn't be magicians at all. Their trauma fuels their power the same way happy thoughts make a patronus. It's so rare to see a story about characters realistically dealing with depression and trauma that isn't just about them overcoming or succumbing to it. These characters just fucking deal with it and try to go on with their lives because the other option is... to not.

At times, it makes the characters very difficult to like. Margo (Janet in the books) and Eliot at least get to be magnificent bastards most of the time. In the show, Jason Ralph brings a lot of adorable charm to Quentin. In the books, he's, well, I think Alice says it best. "You're not as good as I'd hoped, but you're better than you know."

I think it's particularly interesting how the show deals with the source material. My friend, Jack, has this theory that the TV show takes place in one of the other timelines created by the Watcherwoman. I love that idea. I'm not sure if it totally works, but I still love it.

The show takes the darkness in the book and turns it up to eleven. The haunted house episodes when they find out the truth about Christopher Pullover were horrifying. Alice begging the others to go back and help the ghosts of the children while Eliot went on full on nihilist broke my heart.

I don't know. Maybe I'm not really ready to write this. I just keep jumping from one thought to the next. I know that I have some trouble really suggesting that someone else read the book or watch the show. And it's partly because Lev Grossman does such a good job of capturing how Quentin is coasting through life. It's occasionally difficult to get through with a cast of difficult characters doing their best to waste their lives. But it's so emotionally dead-on. And the show, even with it's witty dialogue and stylishly dressed, highly attractive characters (Eliot, I love you, but there is no way you were that hot in the book) goes to some really dark, very squicky places. I'm so accustomed to movie/TV adaptations backing away from those types of things. I expected this to be no different. I thought they'd probably totally ditch the reason Martin was trying to escape into Fillory in the first place. Then, for a bit, I thought they'd changed it so that Pullover was the bad guy.

So, yeah. It's not, like, a fun story to read. It less like Harry Potter for adults and more like if Fantastic Beasts was just about the New Salemists all the time. But, the thing is...

"[F]or 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." -Lev Grossman, The Magicians
This may sound lame or ridiculous, but it's lines like that that helped me get the help I needed. These are the kinds of words that saved my life and made me realize that what I was going through wasn't normal and it didn't have to be that way. And reading this book, even when I'm doing better and almost a decade past the worst of it, it helps me to remind myself that this is it. With or without magic, this is the life I've got and I just need to keep living it.

P.S. Credit where credit is due. My friends did an episode about the show on their podcast, Pilot Inspectors. They've never steered me wrong before, so I trusted Dylan when he said he loved the book.

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