The few critical reviews on the Goodreads page for Lev Grossman’s The Magicians seem to echo one complaint about the wildly popular fantasy series: the protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is miserable. The user Nataliya wrote of him in her two-star review of the first installment: “He makes Holden Caulfield look like a bundle of sunshine. He makes Charlie Brown resemble an embodiment of optimism and positivity. Eeyore the Donkey is brimming with life force compared to our perpetually unhappy hero. [...] Actually, [this] permeates [the] entire book, getting in the way of [...] many readers' enjoyment.” Nataliya is not wrong that the hero, Quentin Coldwater, often allows himself to be defined by his depression, but Quentin’s unhappiness runs deep with purpose. Much of the conflict of the story is rooted in the discrepancy between Quentin’s wondrous surroundings and his dismal mentality. Even as he enters a prestigious university to study magic itself, the fantasy of which he has dreamt all his life, Quentin is left bleak and unfulfilled.
What on Earth (or any fantasy world) could cause a person to feel so perpetually miserable, when they ought to for all logical reasons be happy? How could a person possibly discover all the wonders of which they’d ever dreamed, and still not feel good? This is where depression comes in for author Lev Grossman, and where he uses fiction to speak out. The Magicians series has been heralded for its portrayal of depression in a world teeming with stigma against mental illness. Quentin and his companions are characters who battle both interdimensional bad guys and mental illnesses. Both Quentin (in the television show based on the series) and his friend Julia (in the novels) are prescribed antidepressants to help combat their perpetual melancholy, regardless of the wonders surrounding them. Quentin’s obsession with magic and fantasy novels stems from his longing for somewhere better than the greatest imaginable places -- a place where happiness is attainable. Lev Grossman has faced these realities of depression himself, and writes much of Quentin’s unhappiness from a place of experience.
In his article “Writing and Anti-Depressants: A Match Made in Purgatory,” Lev Grossman wrote: “A lot of people take anti-depressants. A lot of writers take them. But not a lot of people talk about it.” Casting aside his hopes to be seen as a different person than he is, Grossman discussed his own mental health struggles while writing The Magicians trilogy. Particularly, Grossman revealed that he has been diagnosed with atypical depression, which he described as not being atypical at all -- “which is itself kind of depressing.” At the time, Grossman was concerned that his depression would keep him from finishing his books, as he wouldn’t even be able to make it to the keyboard. Grossman recalled: “When I was really struggling with depression, I would lie in bed every day, and I couldn’t get up. And I would watch people doing these normal things, going to their jobs and having their relationships, and I would think, I could never do that. And it felt like they were doing magic.” Thus, Grossman began taking anti-depressants in the midst of creating his fantasy world. He tried several selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors, which he wrote “undeniably” brightened his mood. “The effects of SSRI’s come on slowly, as they gradually alter your brain chemistry [...] so you mostly hear about the changes from the people around you. Those people were giving me the thumbs-up. So I kept on with it.”
In the end, Grossman found solace in writing and decided he didn’t want to medicate any longer. He concluded that: “when I started to get better, and I started getting up, and I started doing all these normal things, I felt like I was a magician.” Still, his struggle with depression shines through in his fiction and personal reflections. Lev Grossman remains ever unafraid to speak out about mental health. He recently said in an interview with writer Laura Miller, “I’m super confessional about my depression – very much. It’s something that, considering how widespread it is, not enough is written about I feel like. I’ve struggled with depression – much less so now – but I did pretty seriously, for a long time, and Quentin does. The books do well among the clinically depressed, that’s a key demographic for The Magicians books. [...] But when I started confronting [depression] head-on, I felt so liberated.” Lev Grossman’s experiences permeate his writing and show the world that sometimes even magic is not enough to make depression disappear. However, Grossman’s persistent hope reveals that, like any fantastical foe, it can be conquered.