I was going to offer the alternative title for this post as “Can a ‘Classic’ Truly be this Disappointing?” but thought it would be too long. The point remains.
I loved John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. It was artistic, beautifully written, thought-provoking. I thought that The Magus would be the same. It is only in preparing to write this post that I discovered that this was Fowles’ first novel. It makes sense; The Magus still has a fine writing style, and I could see glimmers of the character dissection and twists of plot that would make The French Lieutenant’s Woman so enjoyable. But where the one is tightly plotted with solid characters the other is a poorly plotted philosophical mess with characters that act like idiots, or cardboard cut-outs, or both (certainly no one real would put up with the nonsense Conchis continually pulls on Nicholas).
The novel starts out with promise; our hero is Nicholas, a young man at loose ends who decides to take a teaching job at a boys school on a Greek island to get away from the oppressive noise of London and his own pedestrian life. He has also just recently gotten out of a tumultuous relationship with an Australian airline stewardess, Alison. Nicholas is not a great person; he is selfish, unambitious, and has a self-confessed problem with dealing with women.
As soon as Nicholas arrives on the island there is already a mystery brewing. All of the other teachers seem reluctant to talk about the island’s reclusive millionaire, Conchis. Nicholas does eventually meet Conchis, but at first experiences nothing amiss. When Conchis begins to befriend Nicholas and invite him to weekend parties things begin to feel a bit off for both Nicholas and the reader. Odd things begin happening and Nicolas more than once has to second-guess what he is seeing/doing/who he is meeting. Because of this well crafted, mysterious, build-up the first part of The Magus is great fun to read. It also makes the latter half of the book that much more disappointing.
Nicolas finds himself a participant in increasingly bizarre encounters with Conchis, his guest Lily, and other guests. It is clear that Fowles wrote this during the 60′s, and I suspect some of the scenes are supposed to be sexually charged and shocking. Nicholas feels he is in love with Lily, but it could be her twin sister, as they seem to swap roles continuously. Nicholas’ ex-girlfriend, Alison, is awkwardly dragged into the mire for seemingly no reason other than to amuse Conchis.
Nicholas finally leaves Greece, thinking “enough is enough!” but for the sake of the plot doesn’t escape Conchis’ grand scheme. The climax of the novel is when Nicholas (who I think was naked for some reason?) was paraded in front of, and psychoanalyzed by, a group of supposedly respected psychologists. Conchis’ ultimate goal, it turns out, was to continually fuck with Nicholas’ mind/psyche in order to teach him a lesson, help him “grow”, and to get him back together with Alison (who, according to Conchis, is “the one” for Nicholas despite their proven incompatibility).
I almost cannot express my frustration with this book. To begin with such promise and to descend into some 1960′s psycho-babble mess of an ending creates a feeling of ill will. It seems as if Fowles was working on a bildungsroman novel with exotic adventure and then suddenly decided to change the direction of the entire book and add in some psychology textbook jargon from a book he just read- like the annoying freshman in college that “discovers” Nietzsche, or Bergman films, or Burrough’s novels and has to talk endlessly about it. The Magus is certainly the worse for it.