… guh … that title … I mean I could literally change it right now but … I won’t … ugh …
Today I remembered why notebooks – not just notes, notebooks – are so vital for writers: they don’t require you to log on before you start writing shit down. Yes they have a lot less “memory” than a USB stick or your hard drive or The Cloud, but they’re immediately available so long as you have a pen and a light-source. So I’m going to be re-discovering notepads in the coming weeks.
Because I have just started to crack the shell of the troublesome critter that is my intended Nanowrimo project.
I started off by beginning a re-read of The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I still intend to one day review and critique the entire trilogy, but I will take a moment to sum up my major, overarching issue with the ideological vein that runs throughout the three books: it is a Hero’s Journey where the hero doesn’t actually complete the journey. In fact they blatantly fail the journey; they basically end up with the exact inverse conclusion to how the journey should end.
I mean that’s my argument. There’s a few ways to look at it, as with anything, and I have one alternative reading of this being a successful Hero’s Journey. I just don’t think it stands up to the argument that it fails.
To be more specific (and spoilery, so be warned): The Magicians is the story of Quentin Coldwater, who is a self-loathing, bitter, reserved, naive, daydreamy young adult who has a hopeless crush on his best friend’s girlfriend, and spends much of his time wishing that the world of Fillory, the series’ Narnia allegory/critique, was real, so that he could escape into it. Quentin is defined by what he wants, which is what he can’t have – can’t beat the classics. But it’s not just that he wants what he can’t have; he wants it in a particularly heteromasculine way. He wants his best friend’s girl. He wants a magical land of adventure and innocence. He wants to want, because on top of everything else he’s neurotic and depressed. It’s very abstract, existential stuff lumped in with painfully predictable male-entitled material, and it works really well to that end. There’s a reason I wanted to analyse these books as an example of an “authentic” male lead – though probably not anymore, as that word is kind of useless.
What’s also useless is Quentin’s Journey. Because all throughout it he seems to transcend his selfish, hopeless desires that make him miserable because, as this is a Hero’s Journey, they’re not what he needs. They are the objects of desire for his ego, and as Joseph Campbell will tell you post-mortem, any hero is required to relinquish their ego in order to transcend and attain enlightenment, which is the general goal of any Hero’s Journey. He gets to Fillory, and it’s a pile of garbage. He gets the opportunity to sleep with his best friend’s girl, but it’s not in the way he’s always fantasised about it happening so he passes it up. He learns magic, but it’s basically just the same super-elitist academic test-oriented meaninglessness that he’s always been good at, so it’s not really anything new. He and his college buddies graduate and get a pile of money to live off for the rest of their lives, plus a loft apartment in NYC, and it destroys his relationship with his girlfriend (well, he does, but because he’s aimless and unsatisfied). It’s all classic ego stuff, and it’s shown to be vapid and unsatisfying. That part works. And by the end of the second book, he’s lost all of these ego-attachments and is reduced to zero, leaving the third book for him to build himself up again.
Here’s where shit goes downhill. While he loses all the Things that he “wants”, from his best friend’s girl to a life of luxury to being the King of Fillory, he also loses something that, while he was fond of it, he didn’t actually want: his relationship with Alice. Alice is perhaps the most blatant plot-prop I’ve ever come across in any story, and at the end of the first book she sacrifices herself to defeat the Big Bad, and thus Quentin loses her. This being after he cheated on her after a night of drunken debauchery at the loft apartment in NYC (where she also lived) and they were already broken up, but starting to reconcile. She is there to have a heartbreaking story that teaches Quentin a lesson about karma or some shit; she is a Woman in a Refrigerator.
In the third book, she comes back to life. Her sacrifice was not death; she summoned so much magical power that she became a Niffin, a being of pure magical energy and essentially a demon. She was basically all-powerful and found everything hilarious because she was all-powerful, immortal, uncontested in terms of sheer raw magical potency, and could do whatever the fuck she wanted. It’s suggested that Niffins are evil, but really they’re just both autonomous and beholden to no-one. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of like being a witch: a woman who answers to no man and has the power to back it up (anybody can become a niffin, but Alice is the only one who features in any real capacity in the series).
In the third book, Quentin encounters Alice as a Niffin and decides that he’s going to find a way to turn her back into a human.
Because of fucking course he does.
In a way, this makes sense: he’s lost everything, including the one thing he didn’t want and didn’t appreciate at the time – Alice. This is his chance to realise that even if it wasn’t what he fantasised about, it was something real, something that requires him to let go of his selfish egotistical whims and to commit to something unpredictable and distinctly non-fantasy in nature, something he can’t control or romanticise. When he does eventually restore Alice’s humanity, by this logic, you can say that he does actually complete his Hero’s Journey, and in that by restoring Alice’s humanity he returns the Elixir to mankind and allows others to benefit from his enlightenment.
But this is a story that is characterised by its sad puppy protagonist, whose anxieties and bitternesses are decidedly (white, upperclass, educated, heterosexual, cisgender, able) male, in the same vein as Garden State, 500 Days of Summer and Ruby Sparks, only at least with those examples the second and third examples wanted to do some deconstruction (and one of them succeeded) (hint hint it wasn’t 500 Days of Summer). And the thing that makes me feel like The Magicians fails in its promise of a Hero’s Journey where the ego is transcended/abandoned and enlightenment is achieved is that Quentin’s ego is, specifically, a male ego. And that male ego is, throughout the trilogy, repeatedly rewarded either with straight-up perks – rebound girl Poppy in The Magician King is perhaps the most blatant example – or character-development, vis-a-vis Alice’s heroic sacrifice serving mainly to punish Quentin for being a myopic douche.
Quentin fails in his Journey because he never actually transcends his male ego, and for me at least, the entire first and second books revolved around how much that male ego was hurting him. It was the biggest obstacle to his personal growth; it just seemed obvious that it would be the thing he’d have to overcome in order to complete his Journey. But apparently that was never the point, and it’s disappointing, because I think we could really do with a story like that. In the end, his ultimate “heroic” act is to force Alice into a form more pleasing to and manageable by him – her first human-again experience is sleeping with him while furious that he has restored her to human form, hello more rewards for male entitlement – and then they’re just together, like they were always meant to be or some shit. In a way it’s like a very extreme manifestation of why I hate Harry/Ginny as a couple; Harry does not respect what Ginny’s been through, at all, and just seems to want her because he’s a straight teenage boy and she’s physically present and has had a crush on him from the moment they met (which he’s known from the moment they met). It’s the utter lack of respect, of equality, that Quentin retains. He wants a thing; he gets the thing. That’s not a story. That’s sure as fuck not a Hero’s Journey. That’s a masturbatory power-trip.
Which is really upsetting, because I really like the first book and appreciated a lot about the second book, because it seemed like Quentin was going to lose his ego, be knocked down to the lowest peg, and then have to find a way to become a decent, non-selfish human being – and, given the nature of his ego, it would also have to be that he found a way to confront his male entitlement and, like, get over it. Apparently not. And honestly, I’m not surprised. Just disappointed.
This was an important step in me gaining traction with my intended Nanowrimo project because it deals with similar themes – in fact it’s sort of like a cross between The Magicians and Harry Potter, because I’m a hack and I embrace it like a real man. By identifying the specifics regarding my intense dislike for the resolution of the Magicians trilogy, I was able to get a handle on what I was missing from my project: a clear conflict, and a way to resolve it.
This step was completed via notepad, and thus I also learnt that notepads are awesome.
And now I have a story beginning to germinate, and it’s because I put some effort into it. I’ve been thinking about how and why I feel compelled to tell the stories I do try to tell, and for a while I’ve been operating under the assumption that the least effort possible is always the best decision, that trying to force things to work if they don’t work immediately is never worth the effort. It certainly didn’t work for Tallulah, or the 13-year project I gave up on when I was 25, while the stories I have gotten some traction with lately have been the ones I’ve put the least effort into shaping, the ones that were concepts that were strong right from the start. My rule has been, for the past little while (and one of the main reasons why I quit Tallulah), that I will not try to force ideas to become stories, because by and large it’s just not worth it.
Tonight I broke that rule by actually putting some time and effort into developing my thoughts about The Magicians and, by extension, my intended Nanowrimo project. It wasn’t a clear and obvious story; but it was a clear and obvious problem. It was a problem that I felt had to be worked through, and solving a problem is a kind of story all of its own. You start with an obstacle, you try to get past it, and only with time, effort and learning what it is that you’re really dealing with that you eventually gain enlightenment.
And I think, for one month, I can see if that’s enough to make a story out of. Because this is a story I would really like to work, even if it doesn’t fit my current criteria for Worth Putting Effort Into. But there’s a problem with that anyway, in that this rule of mine also presumes that the moment effort is put into it beyond just writing, it becomes sullied and unsuitable, spoiled, ruined, and not worth persisting with. It becomes a lost cause, and I don’t like that idea at all. I need more of a balance, and this story, one that I have had to kind of goad and nudge into the shape of a story, might just teach me that balance.
I guess I’ll find out by the end of November.