Monday, April 23, 2012

Wicked- My thoughts on Maguire's book

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
by Gregory Maguire
When Dorothy triumphed over the Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum's classic tale, we heard only her side of the story. But what about her arch-nemesis, the mysterious Witch? Where did she come from? How did she become so wicked? And what is the true nature of evil?
Gregory Maguire creates a fantasy world so rich and vivid that we will never look at Oz the same way again. Wicked is about a land where animals talk and strive to be treated like first-class citizens, Munchkinlanders seek the comfort of middle-class stability, and the Tin Man becomes a victim of domestic violence. And then there is the little green-skinned girl named Elphaba, who will grow up to become the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, a smart, prickly, and misunderstood creature who challenges all our preconceived notions about the nature of good and evil.
I finally did it. I read all the way through Wicked. I wanted to read it, because I felt like I should. The critics loved it, and I have friends who like it. I wanted to enjoy it. In fact, I wanted to LOVE it, for multiple reasons. I love re-tellings of fairy-tales, I love fantasy, I love new takes on old stories, I love Baum's Wizard of Oz books. I've read most of them, and enjoy the wacky, zany world he has created. I thought this would be fantastic, a re-telling of the Oz story from the witch's point of view. How could it not be good?

(WARNING: I am not talking about the musical loosely based on this novel. I haven't seen it, I have no idea how it fits in with the story, so if you are a fan of the musical, please excuse my ramblings about the book. I understand that they have similarities, but are very different.)

Taking all that into consideration, can you imagine my disappointment when I did not like Gregory Maguire's take on Oz. I'm not sure I can explain what I didn't like, but I'm going to try. Honestly, his lengthy & rambling, ponderous, elephant-carcass of a book seemed the exact opposite of Baum's light-hearted, fresh and rollicking tales of Oz.

First, he made it both political & religious. Blech. He added vast power struggles between different kinds of people, even between the talking Animals. And he seemed to delight in creating weird in-fightings & bitter resentments. He restructured the entire political land-scape, and added biases & prejudices & strangely sexual imagery. The 'wizard' becomes a vengeful and fearful despot inciting truly evil actions. In fact, he seemed to command evil, much as Hitler directed, encouraged and inspired the evil done to all those not of the Aryan race post-WWI.

Next, Maguire made it very dark. I don't mean like a post-apocalyptic Stephen King-esque world. No, I mean darker- there were strange sexual implications and darkly mysterious yearnings going on everywhere. Depraved and deprived people taking their anger and frustrations out on others. Sexual addictions, drug addictions, murders...

Finally, while Maguire apparently intended this as a commentary on good and evil, it seemed to me that his point was that evil just happens. Not much of a commentary... There is no cure, no saving grace, not even really the desire to escape evil. Elphaba, the accidental 'wicked witch of the west' is one of the very few likable characters in the book, yet she passively allows most of the action in the book to take place without intervention. Elphaba is trapped in her situation and does not try to get out. Even her death is an accident in this re-telling.

My favorite thing about Baum's Oz is the innocence and joy in his yarns. The brand new and delightful world of Oz. Yes, bad things happen, but the characters keep trying. They deal with the horrible situations and move on. They don't dwell in the bad things- they mourn them, struggle with what to do, and then figure out a way to deal with them.

The entire time I was reading Maguire's interpretation I was in a horrible mood. It took me a couple of days to figure out it was a direct result of reading the book. I probably should have put it down then, but I wanted to know how it works out! And it doesn't work out. Not really.

I admit it, I was very disappointed with this book... I expected more. I expected something worthy of all the critical hoopla over this book, and it just didn't happen.

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