The Magus, by John Fowles, is the most compelling book I have ever read in my life.
Like all of the best experiences, it snuck up on me with no expectations – a chance glimpse in a bookshop, a shrugging download onto the kindle, the first 50 pages or so unremarkable. Of course, this sort of outwardly unpromising beginning is the best possible position from which to blast onto somebody’s consciousness, leaving them reeling but hooked.
For hooked is the word. If nothing else, read this book to experience what it is to be totally, utterly hooked for hundreds and hundreds of pages – not with a simple whodunnit/clock-ticking-down-to-world-oblivion thriller but with a fascinating, intellectual, mysterious, magical, endlessly turning story driving towards a central mystery that you, must, must, must discover. I strongly recommend that if you want to experience this, you stop reading this post now. The Magus is best read blind. But for the others: the central storyline revolves around the mysterious events that happen to the unappealing protagonist Nicholas, orchestrated by the ‘magus’ character who, we discover, is creating this narrative for some end goal – some lesson or experiment of great import. The Magus and Fowles work together, twisting the plot until Nicholas is panting for The Meaning like a burning man for a glass of water – and we are right there panting with him. Nicholas’s experience of undergoing ever more bizarre, invasive and less reasonable experiences, and accepting all in his desperation of discovering what it is all for, mirrors the reader’s wild gulping of the (many) pages far beyond their normal reading hours. I know from some pokes around blogworld that I am not the only person to have had their world upturned by this book. For me, I found I had to read it:
1. Walking to and from the tube
2. Walking to the platforms and in the escalators in the tube
3. In packed tube carriages so crammed the kindle was centimetres from my face
4. While walking across the City to meetings
5. While brushing my teeth
6. While cooking supper
… and I could go on. This plot has so many twists and turns that you lose all perspective and sanity and plough on, on, on in the wild need to discover what the hell is happening and why it is happening in the first place. You start to resent your daily life for stopping you from living in this world full-time as completely as you want to. If I lived alone, I would have read it in two long, sleepless nights, emerging red eyed but triumphant and in need of toast.
But triumphant is possibly the wrong word, because, with the expectations raised so high, they were only ever going to be dashed (otherwise, this book would be world-famous. Honestly.) When it comes down to it, although Fowles attempts to twist the story around so our initial preoccupation is substituted for another (something he almost achieves – he is a formidable writer), The Magus simply doesn’t have the substance or meaning behind it that it makes you crave so desperately. It would be a convenient excuse to explain this away as postmodernism – there is no one meaning / no one narrative end / the meaning is that there is no meaning… the fact is, Fowles simply didn’t have the goods to make ultimate sense and brilliance of this unique story. And once you discover there is nothing, it is much to the detriment of the novel as a whole, which swings from a pin that is ultimately illusory.
The book has other faults, some quite fundamental – such as a first-person narration which is alternately blind and hyper-perceptive, depending on the novelist’s needs. But it is the missing pin of meaning which is its ultimate downfall. But pin or no pin, this novel stands alone in my experience as one of the most astonishing, mesmerising compelling reads of my life. Read it.