Book review: Enough Magic in the World [2/5]

[Note: I like to write reviews as a way of unpacking how I respond to art, but I don’t presume to have any aesthetic authority. Since this book was written by a personal friend who holds my opinion in high regard, it seems worth reiterating that I’m doing nothing different here. Anyone looking for considered guidance to editing is much better off consulting an editor.]

I.

A few months ago, I attended an “open studios” event in my community, where local artists open their homes or work spaces to the public. There was a little bit of everything you’d expect, and a few things you wouldn’t. The artists were all happy to talk about their work or more casual topics, enthusiasm about local art was everywhere, and I saw parts of my city that I never bothered going to before. It was a lot of fun.

The thing that most stood out to me, though, was how unmoved I was by the majority of the work. My sense of artistic quality is calibrated primarily by museums, so what I’m used to judging has been refined and vetted and often valued at millions of dollars. While there was art on display for Open Studios that I enjoyed, none of it impacted me as much as my favorite piece at any famous museum, and most pieces hardly made an impression on me at all. It’s easy to forget how extraordinarily good museum pieces are when one only views pieces in museums.

This was a bit how I felt reading Enough Magic in the World, a coming-of-age novel about a young woman named Alice who graduates from college and subsequently discovers that she has untapped magical abilities. She is enrolled in an academic institute for magic, a bit behind many of her peers but able to catch up after a while. Through some fault of her own and a great deal of random happenstance, she and her friends become entangled in critically important political machinations. To say the least, this seems unlikely. To say the most, I will use Bayes’ theorem in the next section.

There were some things in the book that I liked, even if they weren’t represented with the density that I’ve come to expect from the novels that I read. For example, I love this paragraph:

Sida considered this for a few seconds, tilting her head to the side so her hair fell onto her thin shoulder. She was dressed almost as simply as I was, yet somehow better, as if she held jeans and t-shirts in high regard and felt everyone else should do the same.

Even though everything in this description is nominally pretty ordinary, there’s a touch of perception that reveals something unique and intimate. That touch is superficially nonsensical, but immediately opens up into an impression that we know exactly what is meant. Because it is slightly bizarre, it resists any familiar pattern of cliché, lending itself credibility.

I’m honestly not sure whether I’ve ever written a sentence of prose that I like as much as the second one above. If a book consisted entirely of paragraphs like that, then it would have a good shot of being a great novel. I would hope to see EMitW move toward a denser population of passages like this as it evolves.

II.

People like to talk about great opening lines of novels. Call me Ishmael; Lolita, love of my life, fire of my loins; I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man; and so on. But if you want to find a great line, then you should read poems. Novels are special in part because they’re long. They can build on themselves and lend weight to lines that are inherently unprofound. It’s closing lines that have the most opportunity for impact because they carry the rest of the story behind them. For example, one of the lines that most impacted me in The Dispossessed is,

She nodded, smiling, and typed onto his Divlab record:

FROM Abbenay, NW Cent lust Sci, TO Elbow, SW. wk co, phosphate mill #1: EMERG PSTG: 5 — 1–3 — 165 — indefinite.

(Although I doubt this seems very convincing, everyone should read that book.)

Obviously, EMitW builds on itself insofar as most sentences picked at random from the middle won’t make any sense out of context, but I didn’t notice as much nuanced emotional layering as I would have liked. This assertion is a bit too abstract for my liking, so I’ll operationalize it with the following test: for any given sentence or paragraph, ask, “what is in the book up to this point that enhances the effect of the present passage, aside from information strictly necessary to parse it such as plot elements and character identification?” I believe I would have a difficult time answering that question in most cases. Of course, it would probably be bad if there were a clear answer in every case, but the balance struck by EMitW seems far from optimal.

The inverse problem of passages not exploiting the emotional impact of what precedes them is that I eventually developed a suspicion that whatever is happening doesn’t contribute to a greater thematic whole. There are entire chapters that are fine as chapters go, but which nevertheless left me unsure about what they’re doing in this particular book. I think this is self-aware, to a degree; the book adopts a sort of learned epistemic helplessness or a cynicism reminiscent of Burn After Reading that jives well with the sense that life is a meaningless whirlwind. And it pretty much is, but any book that takes this observation too seriously will inevitably feel chaotic. After all, what is most interesting to me about life is all of the meaning that we pick up or manufacture along the way of being blown hither and thither. It would be difficult for me to say what I picked up from reading EMitW, and I suspect that a more deliberate focus to the novel would help it to be more concretely rewarding.

III.

A story is most effective when it doesn’t sit quite right. When I read something and find myself nodding along the whole time, saying “yep, that’s how that would go down,” it worries me. People are confusing. They don’t do what they should do. If online dating profiles are reliable, then everyone is “a walking contradiction.”

EMitW handles this well, for the most part. One of Alice’s friends, Sida, is a fantastic character because she strains credibility just enough. She’s quirky in the extreme, which I usually find to be an annoying way to avoid giving a character any challenging or compelling traits. In her case, though, I came to think that her quirkiness masks her deeper personality, with the fact that she would choose that mask being itself one of her intriguing characteristics.

Another major character, Elizabeth, is thoroughly believable but also sometimes surprising. I got through a couple of hundred pages not thinking much of her before she delivered my favorite dialogue in the book. (This scene was a notable exception to the overly-general criticism I raised in the previous section.) In many cases, this might come across as a shortcoming, like the author just forgot to do anything interesting with someone and felt that they had to make it up somehow. But for Lizzie—whose name-variant changes according to Alice’s attitude toward her in any given situation, a device that I very much enjoyed—this made perfect sense. She’s reserved and thoughtful in exactly the right way to make her trajectory seem real.

The only place where I feel the balance of credibility is significantly missed is in Alice’s character. Obviously, since she’s the main character and the narrator, this is rather unfortunate.

I feel kind of bad about this, like I’m not playing along and this doesn’t belong in a critical review, but why didn’t Alice—given her particular preoccupation with math- and fact-driven analysis—even consider the possibility that she’s schizophrenic?

Using Bayes’ theorem, which Alice uses elsewhere to consider the plausibility of God, my own calculation of probabilities looks like this:

P(magic is real | observations) = P(observations | magic is real) \times P(magic is real) / P(observations)

P(schizophrenic | observations) = P(observations | schizophrenic) \times P(schizophrenic) / P(observations)

P(magic is real | observations) / P(schizophrenic | observations) = P(observations | magic is real) \times P(magic is real) / {P(observations | schizophrenic) \times P(schizophrenic)}

A one-minute Google search shows that the onset of schizophrenia occurs most frequently around the early twenties, which is exactly Alice’s demographic. There are no significant sex differences in schizophrenia prevalence. The overall prevalence rate is about 1%, so P(schizophrenic) ~ 10^{-2}. This is something I would want to research more in Alice’s situation, but I would suppose that P(observations | schizophrenic) is somewhere in the ballpark of 10^{-2} on the basis that schizophrenia can manifest in a multitude of ways. To be generous, I’ll let P(observations | schizophrenic) ~ 10^{-3}. Now, it appears that in the book, the overall prevalence rate of magical awareness isn’t much more than 1%, so P(observations | magic is real) ~ 10^{-2}. My priors for an entire underground world concealing relatively widespread magical powers is extremely low. If I had to put a dollar into a pot on the promise that I would be given a billion dollars in the event that this conspiracy were true, I wouldn’t take the bet. I will, once again generously, therefore set P(magic is real) ~ 10^{-9}.

Using the formula above,

P(magic is real | observations) / P(schizophrenic | observations) ~ 10^{-2} \times 10^{-9} / (10^{-3} \times 10^{-2}) = 10^{-6}.

The hypothesis that magic is real should, frankly, not be on the map even after she observes it with her own eyes. At the very least, Alice should seek treatment for schizophrenia and update her degree of belief in the proposition that magic is real in the event that her experiences of magic persist.

When eleven-year-old Harry Potter is told that he’s a wizard, I don’t blame him for failing to question his mental health. I wouldn’t even expect most adults to go through this kind of analysis. But the only explanation I have for Alice’s bizarre omission of this kind of sanity check is that she does, in fact, have some kind of mental disorder.

I can suspend my disbelief in the underground magical conspiracy for the purpose of enjoying the story, but it makes me much more uncomfortable that the person at the center of the book doesn’t react to her experiences in a manner that seems plausible to me.

More broadly, I continually failed to make sense of Alice. I believe that even a perfectly ordinary individual stuck in a bland routine (that is, just about everyone) usually has a rich inner life and the choice of first-person narration entails a responsibility to convey that. Alice self-consciously uses snark and condescension to keep herself beyond vulnerability, which makes her inner life difficult to access even from within her own mental voice.

She was a largely ineffective character for me due to two reasons. First, I found her severely unpleasant, like a less incisive and sympathetic Holden Caulfield. Second, I didn’t discover as much depth of experience lying beneath her sarcasm as I would expect (or at least hope) of most people who present outward personae like Alice’s. For example, she refers to an old boyfriend on the first page, but then we never see anything about her process of coming to terms with her evident resentment, her loneliness or lack thereof, how her experiences affect her comfort trusting others, etc. Aside from isolated quips, it’s hard to see how that history impacts her at all.

This kind of pattern is consistent enough to arguably be more of a character trait than authorial negligence, but in any event, it makes Alice an ill-equipped storyteller. Because of this, I think the same story from Sida’s—or perhaps most of all, Elizabeth’s—perspective would be much more compelling.

IV.

I do not recommend this book, but I would be eager to read the next novel by the author if he writes one. The very best things in EMitW are great and the story does sometimes hang together tightly. On average, though, the world-building wasn’t convincing, the most important character came across as vacuous, and opportunities to tie a thread through large swaths of the novel were under-utilized. I’m sure many of these things would be vastly improved with major revisions and with proper editorial feedback. But for my own interest, at least, I would more selfishly hope that the author tries his hand at another book, where some of these problems can be removed from the outset by design.

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