The Magus by John Fowles

First read: 12/99
Reviewed on: 12/22/99
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

Here's a difference between Laurel and me:

We were in Las Vegas, and the Ramada Resort offered to give us free show tickets if we attended some presentation on buying a timeshare.  We told them that we probably wouldn't buy anything, but they wanted us to sign up, anyway, so we figured "What the hell."  Before the presentation, we were spoken to "casually" by some salespeople, who were clearly putting us into categories.  The official program was due to start, but then it was suddenly cancelled, because a Big Guy (some sort of national manager) was visiting.  So instead of the regular presentation, we got to hear a talk by the Big Guy, and were told that  we were VERY LUCKY that he was in town, because he was a renowned expert.  So what if his talk went a half hour longer than we were told it would go?  We were lucky.

I hadn't planned on drawing attention to myself, but there was one point where he asked, "Raise your hand if you love going to your job every single day, and you don't need your vacation for the sake of mere sanity."  He asked words to that effect; he phrased it better than I did.  So I raised my hand, and was surprised to be the only one.  People were staring, so I put it down, and then yelled, "My GOD it's great to be a professor!"  It just came out.

So, anyway he started working on Laurel in front of everyone.  He asked where she was from, and she said St. Paul.  It turns out that he was from St. Paul, too.   He mentioned all these little out of the way places that Laurel knew about, and they just had the most St. Paul chat you could imagine. 

After the presentation, we were divided up and each of us got a salesman.  Laurel and I got the Big Guy.  I told him that I wasn't going to pay $100,000 for a timeshare (I don't remember the exact number.  Cut me some slack; this is a book review, not a diary) and we argued back and forth.  He offered to bet me that there was a mental math problem I couldn't do; if I could do it he would give me the time share free.  If not, I would buy it.  I refused to bet.  He gave me the puzzle anyway and I did it.  (Square 1.01 in ten seconds)  He was astounded; I was the first person who ever did it, oh boy was I smart.  If only I had made the bet, I would have a free time-share, worth $100,000.  Oh the loss!

Anyway, he left us, respecting our decision not to buy.  But then he came right back.  Evidentally, some couple had defaulted on paying for their timeshare.   They had paid 60% of it off, and stopped.  So Lap and I could have one for only $40,000!  Wow! 

I still wasn't going to buy one right then and there.  There is no way I will spend $40,000 on anything without first going home and thinking about it, and at least asking a grown-up if s/he thinks it is a good idea.  As soon as I said that I wasn't going to decide right away, the Big Guy stopped being friendly, got up, and wouldn't talk to us.  It was weird.  All of a sudden, Lap and I were dirt.

Then this young guy came up to fill out a form, asking why we didn't buy.  For our reason I said, "I'm not ready to spend that kind of money without spending two days to think about it."  He wrote down, "Can't afford it."  I said, "That isn't the reason I gave."  He said, "But that is always the reason."  I said, "Then why did you even ask me?"  He said, unconvincingly and smugly, "I like to know what people say."

Well, as someone who has done studies, I knew that this guy was being Evil.  So I went to the Big Guy to tell him, because I figured the Big Guy would want to know his data was being corrupted.  I didn't want to tattle in FRONT of the Evil Guy, so I asked the Big Guy for his business card.  The Big Guy said, "You could get my business card if you buy a timeshare.  Otherwise we don't really have anything to talk about," and went back to talking to his cronies.

Laurel had a hard time finding our way back to the van to take us back to our hotel.   Nobody was available to help us find it.  It was like the place was deserted.   We finally found it, and spoke to each other and some other people on the way.   Laurel told me that she believed the Big Guy had never been to St. Paul, that he had clearly memorized some "St. Paul native facts," and had made some blatant mistakes.   We also found out from some veterans that there was ALWAYS a Big Guy who just happened to be in town.  After refusing the $100,000 offer, there is always a special circumstance where a lower offer is made.  I now believe that the Evil Guy not filling out the form was also part of the game.  It was all a show.  Every aspect was rehearsed.

I promised to tell you the difference between Laurel and I.  Unlike Laurel, when I go back to Vegas, all I want to do is go to another timeshare presentation.  It was scary, dangerous (what if I bought?) and weird.  And fascinating.  I want to experience that again.  Does that make me a masochist?  I don't know.  But I'm hooked. 

So, what does this have to do with The Magus?  Everything.  I thought it would be a book about a sorceror.  I was wrong.  This was the ultimate "mind-game" story, right in the genre of plays/films like The Accomplice, Deathtrap, The Game, House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner.  There was a key difference.  In most of those "reality shift" stories, I usually figure out the meta-game early on, so the surprises are pleasant, but not really surprising.   Not so with The Magus.  The meta-game kept shifting as well, suckering me in again and again.  I was engrossed the whole time. 

I could relate to the main character, Nicholas, and not just because he's a youngish man moving from a large city to become a professor at a school in a remote area.  He found himself part of a "masque" that was a mean thing, that kept him as a perplexed victim.  But he could have called it off at any time.  He was constantly reminded that he had the option to stop playing, to just stay at his school and teach his classes, and he would be left alone.  But he kept returning to Bourani, probably for the same reasons I want to go to another high-pressure orchestrated sales-event.  In his case it was even more clear-cut than mine.  He would rather have something interesting happen to him, even a bad thing, than have nothing happen at all.  And once Conchis, his main tormentor, understood that, then he was free to push things to their limit.

Sometimes The Magus reminded me of the television show, The Prisoner.  Who are the prisoners, and who are the wardens?  I kept thinking I understood things, and loved the feeling of disorientation as the mind-games continued.  The most frightening part was that  I found myself identifying with both sides.  The Good part of me was shocked, but the Evil part of me finished the book and said, "Hey, Doug, let's start lying to people in order to manipulate them RIGHT NOW!"

I don't want to spoil too much of the book, even though I usually don't worry about that sort of thing.  So I'll restrict myself to just a couple of tidbits:  The lesbian sex scene was the most erotic piece of fiction that I have ever read in my life.   I usually get turned off when sex scenes get too explicit.  Not so in this case.  I will never look at a down comforter the same way again.  It was very strange reading it at lunch in public.  I hope I wasn't blushing.

When I say, "Zeus and Christ have a debate" it sounds funny at best, and abysmal at worst.  If, before I read the book, someone told me I would read a conversation between these two, it might have prevented me from picking it up.  But Fowles pulled it off.  I can safely say that those few pages changed the way I view religion and morality forever.  It was incredible.  I can't get the details of their arguments out of my mind.

The Magus is a long book, about 666 pages, but it was certainly worthwhile.

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