Review of The Magus by John Fowles

ISBN 0316296198 (ISBN13: 9780316296199)

The Magus began on the level of an Aldous Huxley novel, a book with engrossing prose, an intriguing setting, and some sprinkles of philosophy. It had the atmosphere of Lawrence Durrell, and described parts of Greece well. I would call it immersive. But I soon realized the narrator rubbed me the wrong way. By the midway point, I found the man execrable, almost unendurable.

Old fashioned Anglo-Saxon bestsellers often relied on pathetic, outdated tropes, which is not to say that many bestsellers today don’t also suffer from other tropes. This one depicts women as mere objects. For about 300 pages, the book read like pulp romance, as our anti-hero indulged in one female nonentity after another. I lost all respect for the author. Then at about page 500, the plot kicks into high gear, lots of backstory and a cinematic twist is inserted to make up for lost time, and the odd, creepy reputation of the novel becomes clarified, almost interesting again, but I still felt nothing for our poor, oversexed, aging narrator, who is somehow lonely, but still doesn’t ever have to work or worry about money, and he’s just been dealt another bad card, oh goshdarnit.

Similar to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in that the characters represent the worst aspects of the author’s conception of certain types of people, but in themselves do not embody any redeeming qualities in my eyes. Like that book I felt much antipathy and boredom, and have decided that the author has indulged in excessive elaboration on tired themes. Human beings can be sad indeed. How many films have I seen wherein someone falls in love instantly, then loses the one they love temporarily, experiences unbelievable sadness, and “grows” after much introspection? Too many.

I will admit I gained enough from this book not to dismiss it entirely, but it was a long way from 4 stars. As a beach read, or with proper blinders on, the book will be enjoyed by many readers. It is also memorable. Clearly defined, even with the plot holes. But for greater literary value, I recommend Huxley or Durrell.

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