Sunday, February 3, 2008

Wicked!? Eh, not so much.

So I sat down last year with Gregory Maguire's Wicked. I managed to force my way through to the end this week.

I picked it up out of interest because we had just read the first six Oz books by L. Frank Baum, and it seemed like there could be an interesting, modern treatment of the incredibly inconsistent world LFB dreamed up as a vehicle for nightmarish puns. (Seriously. Puns abound in the books.)

I suppose I was thinking of, for example, American McGee's Alice, the third-person platformer that takes place in a darker imagining of Wonderland than Lewis Carrol's. I'm not good at those sorts of games, so I didn't play much past the first level, but I did like the visuals. And for Wonderland, all you need to do is take things slightly more literally, and it becomes very dark indeed without much alteration. (The Cheshire Cat's "We're all mad here" isn't much off from Norman Bates' "We all go a little mad sometimes".)

But Baum's Oz was not at all dark. I think by the end of his series, no one ever died in Oz, or even grew older, and there were peaceful, happy (or at least minimally violent, with combat involving rotten eggs) solutions to everything.

Now, Baum was a vigorous retconner who had turned the Wizard from a benign humbug in the first book, to a tyrant who had sent away the rightful ruler of Oz in the second and possibly third book, to a benevolent trickster later on, as the fans clamored for more Wizard. So, there's a lot of slack.

I knew within the opening chapters of Maguire's book that I wasn't going to like it. But this is fairly construed as a matter of taste. I'm sure, for example, I would find his use of the 3rd Person Omniscient and the occasionally extremely casual prose delightful if I were enjoying the book otherwise. Instead I found them jarring, and kept going back to re-read those sections to make sure I had correctly understood them.

So, you know, take wht I say with a BIG grain of salt.

I was a bit put off with the book in the initial chapters, when we're introduced to Elphaba's mother. (Elphaba, from El-Frank-Baum, apparently, is the name given to the witch, who had no name in LFB's books, or barely a mention after the first one.) She's a woman of casual attendance to her marriage vows.

Great. Let's start our "re-imagining" with sexual indiscretions. Adultery plays a huge part in the book, which doesn't normally bother me, but rubbed me the wrong way here. It's a cheap gateway to making a book "adult", I guess.

I would say it wasn't necessary for advancing the story but I'm not sure I got the story at all. I guess it's supposed to be about the nature of good versus evil, but the Wizard is never portrayed as anything but evil (Hitler/Stalin-esque, really), and the Witch could mostly be described as unpleasant, even as she's willing to kinda-sorta stand up to the Wizard.

It's sort of like the Gnostic interpretation of the Old Testament as being written by the Devil. It almost works, what with the God of the OT being so vengeful and wrathful--but then there are all those commandments about not killing, stealing and lying, which make it hard to really follow through on the whole idea.

There's virtually no morality and very little good to be found in the book, which sort of leaves us with a joyless story about an evil world where evil ultimately triumphs. (Though presumably the Wizard's exit at the end is a win, but Elphaba cannot even be said to have knowing facilitated that.)

In this interpretation, Dorothy is basically the Wizard's stooge in helping him kill Elphaba, however accidentally it happens. The magic that powers a lot of the books is dubious here. There's magic, but it's not good for much. The ruby/silver slippers (ruby in the movie, silver in the books, cleverly skirted here) may or may not be actual magic, but act as a symbol.

Lotta symbols in this book. It's basically about appearances.

But here's the thing: LFB books make me smile. For all their (numerous) flaws, they're fun. This largish tome gave me little to smile about. There were a few references to the books that did. And in the final 100 pages of the book, when it finally crosses with the first Wizard of Oz book, it picks up a bit.

Even toward the end, I was holding out for some great closure that never came. If it was supposed to show how symbolic perceptions can be misinterpreted or spun into evil, I wasn't convinced that there was any real mastery of the subject. Indeed, the disjointed nature of the narrative (split into Elphaba's childhood, college years, post college years, early witchdom and demise) never coalesced for me into a moment where I could say, "Yes, I see. She was good, but portrayed as evil because of a few understandable events." Nobody in the story seems to take her seriously as evil, either, but perhaps we're just supposed to infer how the masses would view her as evil, as they did her (far more evil in practice) sister.

If this is really spun in the musical as a you-go-girl-teen-spirit, I would consider it damned ironic.

But, as noted, this is just not my kind of book. It's mostly thinkin' and yakkin' and little action, and frankly, I can get that from blogs. A book that gets this sort of thing right, in my opinion, is The Mists of Avalon. There, you're given a convincing demonization of a character for understandable reasons, and with the story itself staying mostly true to the source.

It probably would have been more interesting to me to have Elphaba be a powerful rival to the Wizard divided by political beliefs, rather than the sort-of underdog/loser she was. (I mean, really: There is an implication that she could be powerful but she doesn't even know it, though the Wizard does and fears her. She's basically a bystander to the events of her life.)

Up next is Joe Haldeman's latest The Accidental Time Machine, which I already like better.

De gustibus, you know.

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