The villain’s Single Determining Incident wasn’t the thing I disliked most about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, but it was the thing that annoyed me most.
Single Determining Incident is that moment in a fictional character’s life that changes everything. The night Bruce Wayne saw his parents gunned down. The moment Peter Parker realized his uncle’s murderer was the crook he couldn’t be bothered to catch. Matt Murdock’s (Daredevil) father being murdered by a crooked fight promoter. And so on.
It’s not exactly deep psychology, but it can be effective in explaining why a hero is driven to put their life on the line. Or why a villain is, well, villainous: Luthor blaming his hair loss and the destruction of a brilliant, irreplaceable experiment on Superboy; the Joker’s exposure to chemicals used to manufacture playing cards; the Red Skull being plucked from obscurity by Hitler to become der Fuehrer’s right hand.
And then there’s the apparent legion of abused children whose nightmarish childhoods have turned them to crime. It’s something comics have been doing for at least a decade, explaining villains’ evil by “Oh, he was abused in childhood.” Or sometimes the hero’s motivation (retcons for Marvel’s Wonder Man and Hawkeye have presented them both as coming from abusive families). As if that was all the explanation anyone needed.
It’s not that it’s a bad explanation in itself. It works OK in This Gun For Hire when Raven (Alan Ladd) explains his path to professional assassin started with an abused childhood. It’s particularly effective in Detective Story, where Kirk Douglas slowly realizes that much as he despises his harsh, judgmental, bullying father, he’s become the clone of the man he hates (“All my life, I thought I was fighting my father and he was inside me laughing—or maybe crying.”).
But the past decade or so, that kind of thing has turned into a cliché, a short-hand that eliminates the need for thought or character exploration. Abuse is a hideous thing, but it’s not as if it can explain everything about anyone—and precisely because it’s so serious an issue, I find it more annoying than more conventional Determining Incidents.
So, back to The Magician. The story of a New York high-schooler transferring to a school for magic starts out excellently: Grossman’s magic feels incredibly real and believable and the school atmosphere (an old private school just a little self-conscious about being American and not European) works too.
Unfortunately, once the graduates enter the real world, we get a long stretch showing their life as Bright Young Magical Things indulging in the dissipation some twentysomethings do; I found that part boring as heck. And the protagonist is so self-absorbed, selfish and pouty I could have done without so much of his inner life (he’s a well written character, but not one I give a damn about).
That was the part that killed my liking for the book (regrettably—the good parts are really awesome). But what annoyed me is at the end when, recovering from a battle with the big villain, a supporting character reveals the reason the villain fell into darkness—he was raped as a boy! Gasp! Shock! Amazement!
Okay, none of those. It’s about as pointless a revelation (if I’d thought it constituted a spoiler I wouldn’t have brought it up) as several eighties cop shows I remember where the killer’s motive is explained in the last scene as (gasp!) She’s a Lesbian!
It’s not that Grossman’s use of the “twist” is any worse than anybody else’s. But if people are going to write about abuse, I wish they’d do it in a way that doesn’t make it some kind of fictional equivalent to original sin.