As I selected my latest find from the ever-growing stack of Advanced Reader Copies that looms on my bedside table, I felt the tendrils of expectation reach into my stomach, anticipation pupating and breeding the butterflies of excitement. Not only was I going to make a dent in my to-read stack, but this time I was probably in for a real treat. Why? Because I was about to, at last, read Lev Grossman’s first
Though I had read and loved Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy (Viking/Penguin Books), I had never gotten around to scouring the library or Amazon for a copy of his long out-of-print debut, Warp, (originally released in 1997 by St. Martin’s Press). Based on the success of his recent work, or perhaps in celebration of the debut novel’s 19th anniversary, St. Martin’s is rereleasing Warp.
Why they chose to republish the novel a year before the more auspicious 20-year mark, I can only guess, but the whole rerelease — and the novel itself — feels a little underdone to me.
Warp rests comfortably in the coming-of-age-tale category. It is replete with references to famous literary and cinematic wanderers, from Joyce’s Leopold Bloom to Picard’s Enterprise, suggestive perhaps that Hollis, the book’s protagonist, has become unmoored, never having found the tether that should have kept him grounded in adulthood. As the plot unfurls, there is no shortage of a conspicuous consumption of alcohol and resulting rum-soaked repartee, and the archetypal proto manic pixie dream girl shows up right on cue, leaning against a phone in an ATM vestibule, stealing long-distance calls from the bank, ready to rock Hollis’ world and waken in him something unnamed or unnamable.
The primary movement of the novel centers around Hollis’ decision to eschew the settled, office-bound career path and lifestyle his ex-girlfriend and most of his friends have chosen. Since Hollis’ friend, Peters, is housesitting for a wealthy couple, the irreverent pair set up shop, drinking down copious amounts of their unsuspecting host’s expensive wine. I remained uncertain as to why exactly the two cash-strapped loafers had to sneak into the house if Peters had been engaged as its temporary caretaker, but that small hurdle in logic was hardly the biggest thing troubling me as I read.
It wasn’t until about this point — page 166, the end of chapter 11 — that I realized I had read Warp when it was originally released, back at the tail end of the ’90s. Rarely do I find myself reading over half a novel only to have my memory jogged by an interesting plot device or some particularly memorable bit of dialogue. No, as such an avid supporter of Grossman’s later work, I find myself uncomfortably compelled to admit that the novel fails to significantly differentiate itself from any other bildungsroman.
It’s a decent first foray, but Hollis reads like little more than an early-model Quentin Coldwater, the hero of Grossman’s infinitely more mature and fully realized Magicians trilogy. Like Quentin, Hollis makes abundant references to popular culture, particularly to other flaneurs and antiheroes. Like Quentin, Hollis suffers from a post-collegiate ennui as he affects a halfhearted search for meaning and direction. The key difference is that, by the time he has written The Magicians, Grossman has something to say, and he has the polished skill and familiarity with his craft to get his point across. Warp finds him still searching for those tools, hanging lumpy dialogue on poor Hollis, making him a mouthpiece instead of letting him just be a character.
Warp serves as a portrait of an artist on the cusp of hitting his stride, still grappling with the ideas and methods that will propel the rest of his career. While it may not have been the most memorable novel, it was Grossman’s first step on what I sincerely hope will be a long career. And there is something to be said for first steps. Without them, the destination remains nothing more than a dream.