Monday, July 14, 2014

Fiction | Uncertain Questions, Uncertain Answers

At a late night birthday party, I took The Magus by John Fowles off a friend's shelf, and her quick review and summary was something along the lines of: "This book is weird, like Natalie Wood drowning on a boat and her husband doesn't seem innocent and why was Christopher Walken there too? It all creeps me out."

Now, neither of us are really too sure where the Natalie Wood reference came from (it may have been fueled by other things that night) but that general gist is still kinda accurate: this book is weird. And it's a little bit creepy. And something doesn't seem right. And you don't really know what to believe.

There's no real easy way to artfully describe the intricacies of the plot, so brevity will have to take precedence. The premise follows Nicholas Urfe, a fairly wayward young Englishman bored with the lifelessness he finds in England. Hungry for stimulation, he accepts a teaching position on a remote Greek island. There, Nicolas becomes entangled in the game of a millionaire recluse, Mr. Conchis. As Conchis shares with Nicholas his ponderings on life and philosophy, he also manipulates reality, creating a sort of theatrical show—a series of masques—that causes Nicholas to question what's real and what's part of the game.

There is so much to this book.

Right off, the writing is fantastic. It's quick-witted and sarcastic. Throughout a novel that gets increasingly complex and philosophical, the writing keeps it fanciful so that its 600+ pages fly by much faster than you'd expect. Nicholas isn't the most likable character, but we're drawn into his mind and depend on his actions and reactions to tell us what's real and what's not. He's clearly a distinct product of his time and situation, which brings me to another notable part of this book: the setting. It's entirely contingent on the time period. World War II has ended, and now it's far enough in the past for the aftermath to have materialized. It's past immediate recovery; now we see the change in the way people think and do, the way society reorganizes itself and gets moving again. And this is perhaps what Fowles attempts to explore the deepest with The Magus.

"He had simply guessed that for me freedom meant the freedom to satisfy personal desire, private ambition. Against that he set a freedom that must be responsible for its actions; something much older than the existentialist freedom, I suspected - a moral imperative, an almost Christian concept, certainly not a political or democratic one. I thought back over the last few years of my life, the striving for individuality that had obsessed all my generation after the limiting and conforming years of the war, our retreat from society, nation, into self."

Conchis' psychoanalysis of Nicholas has some sort of goal, we must believe, but what that goal is constantly eludes both Nicholas and us, the reader. On the surface, The Magus is a deliciously seductive thriller, steeped in mystery. Deeper, it's a poignant statement of human emotion and psyche, an exploration of freedom, identity, modernity, and society.

I feel, after writing this much, that there is nothing left to say as a summary and initial review, but that I've also barely scratched the surface. There is so much here, so much to uncover, that The Magus is worth many re-readings.

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