book-reviews

The Magus

by John Fowles

Rating: ★★★

An incredibly frustrating novel, made all the more irritating by Fowles' astounding skill. My opinion of the book as a feat is weighted down by how intrinsically disheartening it was as an experience, but ultimately more flattened by the inherent adolescence of the novel, as Fowles himself acknowledges in his foreword.

To be less cryptic, because I have just read over 600 pages chasing meaning-within-meaning, let's take this thing apart.

First, the novel has a very slow start, and for the first 100 pages or so you'll wonder if anything interesting is ever going to happen. In reassurance (or forewarning), the first half of the book took me a couple of days, the last half just one evening.

The trappings of the plot are extremely modernist -- a young intellectual man with a thing for the ladies and lots of somewhat grungy and occasionally mythologised sex, yet suffering from some ill-defined self-diagnosed character defect, positioned so you can see the wars of the early 20th century in the background. The narrative, however, runs towards postmodernism.

The book starts to get interesting when Fowles presents you with a mystery. Fairly soon after that, he hints at an explanation. Our main character is quick enough to spot the hint, however, and starts playing along... only to find that the plot is changing around him, and obviously there is a new explanation... that is also incomplete, as the mysterious host intimates you should already know...

I'm not great at communicating this, but Fowles really does an excellent job with this central element of the novel. Each resolution of the mystery seems to evolve organically from the last, so that, rather than just thinking that the main character is stupid for being fooled, you are dragged along with him, even into and beyond general skepticism. Layer after layer of attempt will lead you to despair of getting a handle on the answer. Very neatly, too, the explanations of what is going on in the plot are symbolic of the bigger Explanations of What Is Going On in the world outside of the pages in the book.

As incredibly well-executed as this is, it is very annoying. The protagonist is not dumb, and nor is he passive -- he attempts to break the bounds of the box, to move unpredictably. But at every turn he is foiled and deceived, because his antagonists are granted ever greater power and perfection, so that at every escalation they are still at least one step ahead of him, perpetually. In plot terms, it is unrealistic -- nobody is that careful or untouchable, and so irritating. In epistemic terms, it is an incredibly depressing message to find.

The adolescence of the novel is perhaps most overt where it comes to the romance that bookends and entwines the escalating despair, and the character flaws of the central patsy. It's pretty hard to relate to him or his problems. (Dude, you do not want anything to do with a girl involved in that sort of scene, get over it). This lack of connection, more than anything, stops the story having the bite it needs. I'm not interested in his personal foibles, I don't relate to his devotion to the girl, so the accompaniment falls on deaf ears, and I greet the finale with a shrug. I still like Fowles, this is definitely masterful writing -- but not, ultimately, for me.