I am ambivalent about The Magus by John Fowles. I am also convinced it is a Good Book. However, it has convinced me of this through a series of arguments that I am not especially susceptible to. I will explain.
The book is set in the 1950s. The main character is a young, well-educated, womanizing Englishman. In most circumstances, I would refer to him as a douche which, in most circumstances, would be a strong point against whatever narrative he happens to appear in. He has no problems apart from not knowing what to do with himself and his dashing good looks. Real sympathetic. This man then embarks on a minor adventure: taking a job teaching at a reputable boarding school on a small Greek island. There he meets a wealthy recluse, and in the interest of not spoiling things (though the statute of limitations has long since expired for this one) that’s all I care to say about that. Part of my ambivalence comes from the cast (and there are only two other people who we spend any significant time with). They’re just not people I can bring myself to care about overly much. In fact, the very nature of the story makes it nigh-impossible to empathize with anyone (apart from our “hero”). So what is so appealing about this book? Two things.
First, the mystery. In spite of the zero-stakes nature of the entire situation, John Fowles successfully lays down a most irresistible string of breadcrumbs. The urge to find out what’s going on is as strong for the reader as for the main character who, in spite of his douchiness, serves as an excellent vessel for our curiosity. Every turn in this labyrinth reveals another more mystifying puzzle. It is one hell of a rabbit-hole.
The second thing for which I will effusively praise this book is the writing. I mean… Here, just read this:
If Rome, a city of the vulgar living, had been depressing after Greece, London, a city of the drab dead, was fifty times worse. I had forgotten the innumerability of the place, its ugliness, its termite density after the sparsities of the Aegean. It was like mud after diamonds, dank undergrowth after sunlit marble; and as the airline bus crawled on its way through that endless suburb that lies between Northolt and Kensington I wondered why anyone should, or could, ever return of his own free will to such a landscape, such a society, such a climate. Flatulent white clouds drifted listlessly in a grey-blue sky; and I could hear people saying ‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’ But all those tired greens, greys, browns … they seemed to compress the movements of the Londoners we passed into a ubiquitous uniformity. It was something I had become too familiar with to notice in the Greeks – how each face there springs unique and sharp from its background. No Greek is like any other Greek; and every English face seemed, that day, like every other English face.
He could be writing a shopping list, and I would be rapt. I honestly read the first few pages of the book, and I was so distracted by the enjoyment of simply reading the words that I had to stop and think to figure out what they had been about. His command of the English language is simply marvelous.
So, if you enjoy writing like the above, a bit of mystery, can tolerate a class B douche-bag in a leading role, and don’t mind being confused (it’s not David Foster Wallace, but it’s pointed in that direction) then I heartily recommend The Magus by John Fowles.