Monday, May 14, 2012

Book Review: Wicked

My first experience of the Wizard of Oz was the singing, dancing, brightly colored fantasy from the movie which brought nothing but happy memories and fond imitations.  When I played the cowardly Lion in a production of the play it brought my love of the happy, joyful version of the story to a new level.  That put me in a somewhat precarious position for reading Wicked because it turns not only the characters but the themes from the original story on their heads.

It's not just that the witch is the heroine and Dorothy is sort-of a bad guy; it's that the joyful, happy version of the original story has been reversed.  This Oz is a dark, dangerous place where singing and dancing is done at the risk of rather terrifying consequences.  This is a place where everyone has a motive other than the one you see on the surface and navigating the complexities of the path set out is a fuck of a lot more complicated than following a brightly colored brick road.  This is a place where every assumption is going to be questioned, analyzed and found to be false or corrupted.  And all of those beloved characters?  Well they're almost as messed up as the ones in that Chuck Palahniuk novel I just read.

So it was strange for me to find myself getting exciting when familiar characters or events or props popped up in this version of the tale.  It was strange to see Maguire's take on the origin of all these people and places and things.  It was strange to connect the dots from the long, strange back story to the original plot of the movie.  And most of all it was strange to find myself liking all of it.

Because the biggest difference between the Wizard of Oz from my youth and the one from this book is that one was happy and the other was definitively sad.  There's no happy ending, there's resolution of the terrible events which took place, there's no reassurance that it all meant something.  No, Maguire refuses to succumb to any of the cliches one would find in the fairy tales from one's youth.  In fact, Maguire addresses that directly: "In the life of a Witch, there is no after, in the ever after of a Witch, there is no happily".

It's sort of like finding out that the fat, jolly Santa Claus from your youth is actually your alcoholic, abusive uncle in a red suit.  Or that the tooth fairy is actually your mom bribing you out of a combination of guilt and some false sense of obligation to an outdated story.  Or that your favorite childhood blanket is the reason you kept getting the flu every winter.

But it's not the jaded, cynical adult version- it's the mature adult version.  It's going further into the tragic story of why your uncle is alcoholic and abusive.  Or why your mom tried so hard to keep that fantasy alive for so long.  Or why the symbolism of that blanket made it worth every sniffle in the end.  It's going past blame to empathy; past superficial explanations to nuanced examinations.

It's like everything else in my experience: the search for answers to all these complicated questions only leads to more questions.  So perhaps saying that this was the sad version of the original is far too simple.  Perhaps it's more accurate to say that the biggest difference is that one is surface level and the other is bottomless.  Because that's the thing about digging for clues- you never really get to the bottom of it.

And I don't mean to make it sound like it's not an enjoyable experience here.  Maguire somehow manages to examine endlessly complex issues like family ties, politics, religion, sexuality and intimacy, societal norms, coming of age and re-examining childhood with the air of grace one would expect from a far more serious piece of literature.  A lot of the discussions reminded me of things I've seen in incredibly well-done political dramas or award winning autobiographies.  But it's done with the whimsical characters of the original story which are so familiar from childhood.

Honestly, there were so many passages that truly blew my mind with their beauty and complexity.  Looking at the scars from youth, how they formed, and what they mean to our identity as adults.  Wanting to blame our faults on the mistakes of our parents or those who taught us and finding that we would have done the same in their shoes.  Asking the difficult questions about the nature of good and evil and why people do what they do and finding that there are no easy answers but only a maze of different viewpoints.  And what's really amazing- and possibly Maguire's greatest strength- is that he uses the same language one would find in the sources one would examine for these answers: parables, allegories, apothegms and rhetoric.  So many passages are introduced as if from the bible or an archaic fable or an ancient myth and the same controversy about the truth or validity of these is argued by the characters discussing them.

The way that he breaks down the societal norms, geographical boundaries, politics and religions of all these different peoples makes Oz look like something featured in national geographic.  He balances lyrical verse with factual observations about the characters, how they look, where they live and their culture.  He looks at love and anger and prejudice and reverence and everything in between with confounding complexity.  And he doesn't give you any answers.  Seriously, if I were pursuing a PHD in literature studies I could do a dissertation on this thing and still not cover it all.

Even the structure of the book raises questions rather than concluding story arcs.  Every time a huge life-changing event happens he ends the section of the book and moves to a different time several years later where you're left wondering what the hell happened all those years ago.  And the main character whose eyes we're seeing all this through is as perplexing and multilayered as one of Miller's antiheroes.   She doesn't understand herself and is constantly seeking to understand her own complexity.  And the more she learns, the harder it becomes to conclude anything.

In the end I think what strikes me most about this is just how fascinating and unsettling all those questions are.  It's impossible for me to draw any tidy conclusions about it because of that.  There's no good or bad because there's no black or white in this book.  Everything is gray.  But I will say this: the man has way with words.  His descriptions are heartbreaking and beautiful and although I feel sort of disquieted I'm still compelled enough to want to try out Son of Witch.  Because there's way too many unanswered questions to simply move on.

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