Thursday, February 01, 2007

History Is Written by the Winners

Wicked, The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire, Read by John McDonough, Recorded Books, LLC, 2000

Son of a Witch, by Gregory Maguire, Read by The Author, HarperCollinsPublishers, Inc., 2005

The idea of books that tweak our settled assumptions about certain stories have a timeless appeal. Whether Mark Twain is giving us the real scoop on Adam and Eve or Tom Stoppard’s peek behind the curtains in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, there seems an insatiable curiosity out there not just for “the stuff they left out” but often for subversive readings of classics. It’s a rare, rare, rare treat for the spin-off to outdo the original, and oftentimes it was better left undone.

One of the keys to success can be found in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Children’s literature is filled with stories ripe for alternate versions and such books can provide a kind of frisson of titillation when adult themes intrude upon our carefully preserved childhood memories. Well done, such works can illuminate our original understanding and enjoyment of the source material (as Stoppard does for Hamlet, at least for this critic); badly done, there is not enough forgiveness in the world for a poor artist who mangles his or her betters.

A second key to easy success lies in picking works that aren’t themselves particularly good to begin with. While the Oz books remain enduring classics, the first one at least isn’t particularly great by any stretch of the imagination. Baum’s writing is charming at times, but by no means immortal.

And thus, with a longish career of reinterpreting fairy tales and classic stories, Maguire hit real gold with his treatment of the inhabitants of Munchkinland and the surrounding areas. His first book, Wicked, has not only earned its bestseller status several times over, but has spawned a nearly as successful Broadway musical spin-off of its own, as well as a weirder, less source-based sequel, Son of a Witch.

The first book, hewing closer to the line set down by Baum and the Judy Garland film, is perhaps the better of the two, the one feeling the most necessary to the author to write. Son of a Witch, Maguire explains, was written under two compulsions: the now iconic photo of the black-hooded Iraqi prisoner at Abu Ghraib and the enormous number of letters from young girls he’s received since Wicked’s publication asking “well, what next?”

The first reason rings true; the second bears too uncanny a resemblance to Baum’s similar reasons for why he too returned to the land of Oz. Touching that first reason, Maguire’s sequel is heavy on a kind of obvious contemporary political satire. After the Wizard’s departure, a straw man (the Scarecrow) briefly occupies the throne, put up in the role his name suggests, Glinda takes over following his abdication, to herself be succeeded by the immature Shell, a spoiled boy king who lived a life of wantonness only to reform and claim to hear the voice of god directing his actions. Yes, it’s that overt.

This second book uses that backdrop to focus on Liir, the illegitimate son of Elphaba, the former book’s Wicked Witch of the West, as he searches for a young girl, his cousin the princess Nor. Along the way, he joins the army, torches innocent villagers’ homes, loses faith in the army, has an oddly placed homosexual affair, and battles dragons. Unencumbered by much back story, Maguire could have taken this tale as far as he wanted to go in redefining Oz to suit his tastes. If this is the best that occurred to him in the intervening years between Wicked’s publication and that of Son of a Witch, perhaps he should have stayed away longer.

The first book on the other hand is justly a best seller. Maguire’s at his strongest when he’s tweaking our previous beliefs about Oz and that all-too-familiar situation. Thus, it isn’t left merely that there are talking animals in Oz, but that we learn there are animals and there are Animals. This latter are the sentient ones who talk, think, express themselves, and interact on the level of humans. Plus we are given little glimpses of a more suggestive political allusions, rather than clubbed with it. When Oz begins placing restrictions on Animals, shunting them off to separate facilities from Humans, the connection to Oz’s past as Segregation era American shuffles obliquely in the background.

Maguire wisely starts his book with a quote from Baum’s, in which the Wizard of Oz bargains to send Dorothy home, but only if she kills the Wicked Witch of the West. That sets the tone to get Elphaba our sympathy. Before we learn any more of her, we learn the first thing — there is a price on her head.

What Maguire goes back for, rewinding the film to before even Elphaba’s birth, is just what circumstances made her who she became, just what made her into the kind of person who gets a price put on her head. And so we meet baby Elphaba, a green-skinned, sharp-toothed little tyke who frightens all who meet her. After she looks through a telescope, Elphaba sees the future in a hot air balloon, the real monster arriving. “Horrors,” she says, her first word, “horrors.”

Her early childhood sets the stage, with a kindly preacher father losing his flock to the new sensuous Pleasure Faith, a loose and dissatisfied mother who fostered the bastard Elphaba on him, and a Quadling nanny named Turtle Heart, Quadlings being a kind of simple folk who speak in old movie Injun subject-verb constructions. Elphaba comes by her independent, head-strong nature not as a result of this family, nor in spite of it. A child as freakish as she would be thrown upon her own resources anywhere in Oz or its environs.

The story fast forwards a few years to college where we meet Elphaba’s roommate, a fancy girl named Galinda (later she will drop that first “a”) who is at first bubbleheaded and only interested in fashion. They are later joined by Elphaba’s likewise freakish sister Nessarose; aggravatingly saintly and self-effacing, she is an armless portrait of passive-aggressiveness on steroids.

And, much like any college student, armless or green or bubbleheaded, the three girls all discover to greater or lesser extents their political leanings. At time we catch slight whiffs of greater forces than they moving about in the world, hints that somehow their every moves are as plotted as any pawns’, while at others the Wizard’s machinations are bluntly in the fore. The Gale Forces, his shock troops in black with shiny leather boots, break up printing presses with ax-handles, arrest dissenters at midnight and hold mock trials, and march through towns in formation.

All of which begins to set up a world in which Elphaba is ripe to become a rebel. It is also here at college where she befriends a Goat researcher who is seeking to understand the origins of his kind, Animals who have left regular animals behind. When the Emperor’s new anti-Animal laws are imposed with chilling effects, Elphaba’s calling comes to her almost naturally.

Part of what the book purports to be about is the nature of evil, how it comes into the world, its assumed necessity as catalyst for good, and the best ways of combating it. While there are occasional discussions of evil among the main characters, it is never delved into with any great energy, more presented as window-dressing philosophy in between action scenes. At one dinner party, each member suggests their own interpretation of the word, though it is clear that Elphaba is caught upon the crux of whether evil is a thing, an act, a feeling, or an absolute. This is perhaps the book’s most profound consideration, though to its credit, Maguire never worries about settling the question.

If there is a significant weakness in the story, it is that we know all too well the end of Elphaba. It takes a bit of the urgency out of the closing chapters while Maguire fails to provide her with any goal previously unknown from the film or Baum’s book. A desperate need to accomplish some hidden task would have added real tension to the closing chapters. When we know the end, we need a race against that end. Even if her goal should be to avoid being killed by Dorothy, Elphaba makes no great effort to do so. A spell book she doesn’t wish to see fall into the Wizard’s hands is introduced somewhere in all this and would have provided a perfect climactic race, though Maguire seems to have brought up the subject only to mostly forget it.

The final moments of the book leading up to the fateful bucket of water is remarkably tied well to the preceding elements though. Dorothy begs the Witch for forgiveness for her accident. Facing her end, Elphaba’s last words “What a world, what a world!” are a remark upon how she is asked for the forgiveness she herself was unable to ever ask for and receive early in her life. It is a testimony to the irony of fate, and it is the book’s most powerful use of pre-existing material for its own ends. In that one incident, Maguire manages a moment of real magic, blending his sources, his own previous groundwork, and a climax into a scene that is worth more than the sum of its parts. It’s a shame he doesn’t pull off that trick on every page.

Reader John McDonough who handles the first book has a warm but gruff kind of voice which gives you the happy feeling of being read a story by a kindly grandfather while lying in bed. His able performance settles on you like a well worn quilt.

The most immediately noticeable difference in the sequel is that the author himself has decided to read, which is almost universally a bad idea. Maguire has a pleasant enough if exceedingly nasal voice, but he’s just too in love with his prose, too in love with his success, and he reads the book in a languorous dragging tone that fills you with a sense of impatience. He also provides different vocal inflections for each character, all of them variations on harsh growls. As a essay in comparisons, his audio rendition mirrors the letdowns of the second book. One might call that fitting, I suppose.

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