Nicholas Urfe is mediocre and bored with his life in England. After multiple affairs with messy endings, he takes a teaching job on a remote island in Greece, but before he leaves, the previous instructor gives him a cryptic warning: “Beware of the waiting room.”
Once on Phraxos, Nicko’s old habits catch up to him, and he’s once again bored until he comes across Mr. Conchis (pronounced, oddly enough, like “conscious”) and the forewarned waiting room. Mr. Conchis, or the magus, challenges every thought Nicholas has ever had, frightening him and forcing him to play a game without parameters and in which there is no true winner.
You know how in movies people go in fun houses except they’re not really fun because someone is totally going to die in the fun house? The Magus. And you silently yell at the character not to go into the fun house, but they do it anyway? Nicholas Urfe.
This is an incredibly difficult book to explain because oh lord, it’s exactly like walking in a fun house. You go in and everything seems innocent and slightly fun, and then what you know is turned on its head. The biggest lesson of the fun house and The Magus? You cannot be sure of anything.
As I read The Magus, I had the oddest and most unnerving feeling I’ve ever experienced, and I must say it was much more terrifying than the scariest book I’ve ever read. Because as Mr. Conchis plays with Nicholas’ ideas of reality, so too does he play with the reader’s. Mr. Conchis initially tells the story of Lily, a woman he loved and lost to death, and by the time “Lily” appears, it was so expected and anticipated – yet eerie and unreal – that I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. Nicholas reacts in much the same way and the more Conchis unsettles what Nicholas knows to be real, the less Nicholas is sure that anything is real. At the same time I silently begged Nicholas not to return to the lair of Mr. Conchis, I also urged him forward, eager to see what hellish turn or conclusion there might be.
The book jacket describes the novel as “a maze, a dark door,” and I agree. Much like a fun house, a maze is something fairly innocuous. It is in the inevitable failure to find our way out that the maze becomes something other than a puzzle, the monster under the bed, or the ghost in the attic. In The Magus, Fowles attempts to undo all civilized, organized belief systems and ways of thinking in order to push the reader into somewhere beyond, into a waiting room of sorts that, if you are willing to constantly question yourself and your surrounding, you may or may not ever leave. Because outside the walls of the maze, are we really any less restricted or sure of our way?
Fascinating and petrifying, this novel is a must read for students of philosophy or those who love intellectual thrillers.