Do you know the feeling when you’re watching a horror movie, and you know the killer is hiding in a room, and the innocent young girl is naively headed there? How you just want to shout at her not to go in there? Or the feeling when your friend decides to give her loser boyfriend just one more chance?
I had those feelings quite often while reading John Fowles’ The Magus - a novel that at first had me gripped in suspense. But slowly – we’ve got 650 pages here – that suspense turned to absolute frustration, then anger, then indifference. Let me explain.
The Magus begins with Nicholas Urfe in England. He ends up meeting this woman, Alison, and getting into a messy relationship with her. Eventually, she becomes a stewardess and he gets a teaching post at a boys school on a Greek island, both pursuing these paths partly to escape each other. Nicholas had inquired with some of the previous English teachers at this school, and had gotten rather cryptic information revolving around a rich old man (Conchis) who lived part-time in a mansion on the island.
So, Nicholas goes to Greece, and through curiosity he happens upon this mansion, and through a series of what turns out to be set-ups for him, he comes to meet Conchis, who is eccentric to say the least. I could not even fathom trying to explain the rest, but it involves twins Nicholas meets through Conchis. Are they actresses? Are they his prisoners? His lovers? His relatives? Are they on the side of Conchis, or on Nicholas’s side, or both? Then Alison comes back, then she kills herself. Or does she?
The first half or so of the novel was enthralling; or mostly so, and very engaging. I was interested – what was going to happen? Beyond that point, my feelings began to change towards the characters, and the novel in general.
Firstly, there were multiple times in the last 250(!) pages when it felt as if the action were winding down. Fowles was dusting his hands off, ready to wrap up. But then I would look at the vast amount of pages left and wonder how on earth this would drag out that long after the denoument. But then, of course, something else would happen – another crisis, another twist in Conchis’s game, and the process would repeat again over the next 50 or so pages. After this occurred twice, the feelings I described above began to surface. Nicholas would once again fall into their trap, get sucked back into their lies – knowing they were likely lying – and I wanted to scream at him: TELL THEM TO F---OFF AND GO BACK TO YOUR ROOM!
This reaction points to my first personal problem with the novel – a complete failure to understand the motivation behind the actions of any of the characters. I’m the type of person who hates surprises. I hate unnecessary mysteriousness. I am not Nicholas Urfe, and by the time June showed up at the gate with all her nonsense (if not long before), I would have said some nasty words and gone back to grading papers. So why Nicholas keeps falling into it again and again is beyond me. The motivation is presented that he is so head-over-heals in love with Lily or Julia or whatever her name, but I don’t buy it. Seriously – if someone cannot be straight with you about what their name is, what is the point? And why all these actors – or are they psychologists? – are involved is beyond me. Having a little fun is one thing, but to be involved in kidnapping and torturing someone just to show him about freedom, or that he’s a cad, or whatever their final motivation is supposed to be (it’s not clear) – well, I don’t get it. And what Alison does is absolutely beyond my comprehension. I get she was angry at him for dumping her – but to participate in a game by pretending that you’ve killed yourself is a bit overboard. Though it wasn’t the most overboard plot point in this novel, which should tell you something. Conchis – well, I won’t even pretend I understand one iota of motivation.
In the same vein of not understanding the motivations of the characters, I don’t understand Nicholas’s reaction to all the events that occur. After June (or is it Rose?) shows up at the gate, and pretends she doesn’t know about what happened with Alison (Nicholas, at this point, still believes that she killed herself), Nicholas essentially gets himself kidnapped by Conchis. They take him to an unknown location where he is drugged, questioned, and eventually lead through the silliest ceremony of either doctors and psychologists or actors in elaborate costume waxing Freudian about Nicholas, while he is positioned on a throne, half-naked, bound and gagged. They then drug him again and drop him off on some other Greek island, gets back to his school only to find out that he was fired from his position. While waiting to return to England, he glimpses Alison, and realizes that she never did kill herself – all that was part of the game as well. (I feel that I keep saying, “and THEN.”) Through all this, I was so angry for Nicholas. I came to hate all of these jerks. I wanted him to be able to get some kind of revenge on them. But he comes see some better purpose for all of this. The whole, Yes, I was kidnapped but it made me a better person. Well, maybe it did, but I certainly wouldn’t have any positive feelings towards the person that did it, or that participated in it. I was in an abusive relationship once. It made me a different person, not necessarily a better one. And trust me, I don’t have any tender feelings for that person. So Nick continuing to pursue it all, tracking everyone down, and waiting for Alison – not waiting to yell at Alison, but maybe to get back with her – well, I just cannot understand it.
So, I’ve got characters whose motivation and reactions I don’t understand. Plot twists out the wazzoo, to the point where I didn’t care anymore. In the end, I don’t know what the truth was. I don’t understand what the point of the experiment was. I don’t understand why I should believe in any sense such an elaborate expense of money, time and effort on international levels to tell some second-rate English teacher that he’s a cad. And I don’t care. I allowed myself to digest the novel for a few weeks before I finished this review, so that I had time to digest it and really consider my thoughts on it. But I still feel incredibly indifferent to it. Somewhere along the line, The Magus lost me and we weren’t able to get back on track. Overall, I was disappointed. Someday I will be coming back to Fowles, but I won’t likely be coming back to The Magus.