Inauguration crowds, Pizzagate, illegal voting: these subjects can all be hailed as the cream of the fake news crop. In today’s time of questionable government statements (or tweets) and pseudo-journalism, the divide between the real and the imagined is shrinking. The boundaries of reality, or the contradicting folds of the abstract which threaten it, are defined chillingly in John Fowles’s 1965 novel “The Magus.”
The questions of truth are examined from the coarse sands of azul Aegean bays and Mediterranean pine forests, from the saltiness of the Peloponnese winds and the crystalline views of a cottage. On the Greek Island of Phraxos, a disillusioned and somewhat dislikeable English poet–Nicholas Urfe–is the subject of what may be an experiment, a summer of entertainment, or something more sinister. “The Magus” is uncategorizable, and abounds in 600-odd pages through plots and games and plans. All truths are esoteric.
“One went down, and it seemed one could go no farther; but at the end another way went even lower,” said Urfe when contemplating the realities and simulations of his life.
Urfe leaves England as a lost twenty-something, looking to be isolated. He signs up to teach English at a Greek school and ships off to Phraxos leaving all behind. His time there is almost immediately fraught with mystery and the games of perception; the reader cannot be sure of any reality under the spell of his new acquaintance.
Across the provincial island from the school where Urfe works is a wealthy and evasive foreigner. Maurice Conchis lives in a simple cottage on an outcropping amongst pine and grape. Urfe is drawn to the property by a curiosity which consumes him, and which compounds daily, overtaking the banalities of his job as his focus. Urfe adores and criticizes Conchis, who seeks to jettison sagacity, overtly and clandestinely, upon Urfe at every possible moment. Urfe is quickly entranced with the stories Conchis tells, and Conchis begins to deceive him with choreographed action and events. Conchis places unaware Urfe at the center of staged scenes with actors, riveting and fabricated stories, and as a spectator of strange and interconnected events on Phraxos–all connected to Conchis and some grand dogma to be revealed.
Conchis is a master of deception, constantly in control, or providing an illusion of control. He employs characters and settings, monologues, and hypnosis. Urfe and the reader are quickly lost in the maze of truths. Performed wartime occupation scenes from Conchis’ past, satirized Greek tragedies with unknowing Urfe as the star, triply fake identities and relationships, and fabricated interactions with psychoanalysts all exist to confuse. Urfe’s distress and his doubt, his questioning of every experience is the core action of the book. The reader becomes obsessed with the trick, it is impossible to discern what happens and what is organized by Conchis.
Conchis is reminiscent of the writer, Romain Gary. The French novelist spun fantastical tales, and almost all were proven false–fake news. His ability to entertain the public with stories known to be false so adeptly is what Conchis excels at. Conchis is a trickster, a psychological God who can transform the desires of those snared in his web, but at the heart of the narrative is a question: is anything Conchis says or does rooted in logic or reality?
Readers will be glued to the novel, obsessed with the ensnaring dialogue of Conchis and Urfe, bewildered by the dazzling displays of deception, until everything is conspiracy. Urfe is an unknowing subject or actor, toyed with by a God. The master of artifice, the magus of fake news, is Conchis. There is no simple way to convey the feel of the novel, it is compelling, and fantastic, but not at all silly. It seems perfect in a time when possible partnerships and lies seem to lurk all about our system, and the perennial questions of control and illusion in the post-war West brought forward by Fowles remain impactful.