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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Until very recently I joked, mostly to my well-read wife, that writers Lev Grossman and Austin Grossman should be brothers. Not just brothers, but twins. The separated-at-birth kind, ones who, while raised in distant households, unaware of the other’s existence, answered a shared genetic calling and grew up to become . . . novelists! And not just garden variety novelists, but boundary-breaking explorers of that no man’s land between the peaks of highbrow Literature and the slums of genre fiction.

My wife appreciated the dramatic coincidence too, though my “joke” wasn’t the kind that produced something like, say, laughter. Until this morning. When I Googled each Grossman and discovered that, in fact, they are brothers. And not just brothers, but twins. How else to explain the June 26, 1969 birthdates and identical Lex Luthor haircuts?

I got the separated-at-birth part wrong though, which scuttles my nature vs. nature hypothesis. I suspect that, in addition to DNA, the Grossman boys shared quite a few books growing up. Some of them comic books. The most spurned neighborhood in the genre fiction slums. What used to be called pulp. As in, not worth the paper it’s printed on.

The Grossman boys must have shared some higher stock paper too, because despite their novels’ lowbrow subject matter, both are wizards of the English language, producing the kind of sentence-level alchemy I most admire. I teach fiction writing, so I also believe writing skills are learned not bred, and yet there’s a whiff of the difficult-to-quantify in their pages, a likeness of talent improbable if explained only by reading lists and lesson plans.

Or maybe I’m just a sucker for literary genre fiction.

That lowbrow-highbrow no man’s land is a pretty fertile field these days, arguably Literature’s 21st century capital, populated by a who’s who of award winners (see Thrilling Tales for the list). Ian McEwan just received citizenship this month with his “literary spy novel,” Sweet Tooth.  But the Grossmans planted their flags years ago.

Lev ventured into the territory first, flirting at the boundaries with the Star Trek obsessed protagonist of his 1997 novel, Warp, and then he fully and brilliantly collided the fantasy realms of Hogwarts and Narnia in his 2009 The Magicians. Austin made the leap in a single bound, with his 2007 Soon I Will Be Invincible homage to Bronze Age superheroes.

I’ve taught Invincible several times, in both my Superhero and contemporary novel courses. Magicians is a more recent discovery, one I’m happily inflicting on my fiction writing students this semester as well as my all-male book club. Both novels are examples of everything that’s right about literature of the last decade. The old categories have collapsed. Wizards and superheroes were once the pulpiest of the pulps, material verboten for any serious writers. Not so now. Genre fiction is open game for even the most literary minded.

But the Grossmans (Grossmen?) do more than doodle unlikely figures into stodgy landscapes. They strip the formulas down to their canvas and remix the paints into previously unimaginable hybrid colors. That means revealing why genre fiction was formulaic to begin with. Why, for instance, do supervillains like Lex Luthor never never never learn from their mistakes and just keep plugging away, one failed plan for world domination after another? The old answer was easy: the plot needed them too. But Austin Grossman scrapes that excuse way and invents an evil genius who makes human sense, one whose monomania is understandable at complex, psychological levels that resonate realistically.

Lev Grossman digs even deeper, down to the metaphysics of the genre universe. A plot-driven world is a reassuring world, one meticulously controlled by an all-knowing and all-powerful author who always keeps his characters’ best interests at heart. Take away that loving god and Hogwarts is a school like any other, a degree in spell casting no different than engineering. Lev takes the magic out of magic. And then he puts it back in, conjuring a version of that most God-centric fantasy of them all, Narnia. Suddenly life has meaning again, with quests and bad guys and climactic battles. Who doesn’t want to live in a world where everything happens for a reason?

To be fair, Austin beat Lev to Narnia. He calls his Elfland, and makes it the secret wellspring of the superheroine Regina’s powers. Only as she ages so do her childhood stories, and eventually her scepter is just a sliver of wood, a cheap prop, nothing magic about it. Narnia can’t last. Lev calls his realm Fillory, but it’s the same place. Home. The promised land we’re all trying to get back to. I picture them, Lev and Austin, in their pajamas, leaning over the rails of their bunk beds, discussing Prince Caspian, arguing whose turn it is to read Dawn Treader this time, who gets The Last Battle next, as the spine of The Magician’s Nephew tears in their fists.

I don’t know who wins, but when Lev Grossman visits my fiction class later this month, I’ll ask.

[Addendum: Now you have to check out this excerpt from the A.V. Club’s interview of Lev Grossman:

What sparked The Magicians?

Lev Grossman: It was in 2004, and I’d been working on a relatively conventional, literary novel for a year and a half. My brother Austin sent me the manuscript of his book Soon I Will Be Invincible. I had been the writer in the family for a little while. He designed videogames; that was his thing. And then he was like, “Oh, by the way, I’ve been working on this novel. Let me send you the first five chapters.” I was like, “Aw, that’s cute, man. That’s awesome. I’ll take a look at it.” Then I read it. It was really fucking good. It was about superheroes and all this totally awesome shit that he and I were into when we were kids. That’s when I suddenly realized, “What the fuck am I doing? I’m writing some kind of sensitive, conventional, The Corrections-esque novel about the way we live now. I should be writing about magic or robots or some shit. Why don’t I try doing the awesome shit?” So I chucked what I had and started over with The Magicians.]

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