Reading John Fowles’s The Magus is a lot like watching David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. It’s totally captivating all the way through, but when the end comes, your first reaction is What? followed by a baffled silence and the feeling of possibly having just been ripped off. However, as others have said: The Magus is something you either get or you don’t, and if you don’t get it, then you’ll simply believe that Fowles has written complete rubbish. If you do get it, you’ll mull things over for days afterward and conclude that, based on the entire premise of the story, the ending was perfectly reasonable.
Nicholas Urfe is a young Englishman who accepts a teaching position on the island of Phraxos in Greece. Once there his world is turned upside-down as he unwittingly becomes the central character in an unusual and unnerving psychological experiment. He becomes entrapped in an illusion, or the “godgame” as it’s referred to, constructed by Conchis, a multi-millionaire living on the island. Never knowing what is real or imaginary, and continually being lied to, mislead and manipulated, Urfe enters in to a theatrical world that is deceptively entwined with reality.
Events from the First World War that pertain to the island are re-enacted, and other people who are involved, appear as one thing and then another. Urfe is constantly lead up the garden path, so to speak, and perpetually grappling for the truth, but never receiving satisfaction about what’s going on, why it’s going on, and why he was chosen.
At one point he demands of the character, Lily de Seitas, to be told if certain events were true. Her response is: ‘An answer is a form of death’, meaning that it’s not important what is real and what is not: having the experience and the knowledge something imparts is more beneficial.
If you are one of the people who do get what The Magus is about, you will enjoy every minute of it. This book felt like a trusty companion for the two weeks or so it took me to get through all 582 pages. It was only out of my hands when completely necessary: every twist and turn that the story took, I needed, like Urfe, to uncover the truth.
Fowles is obviously a highly intelligent writer with a strong literary background. Many scenes throughout the book are heavily saturated in theatrical and literary symbolism. He’s certainly earned his place at number 93 on the Modern Library’s top 100 list.