Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire



I definitely went into this read expecting a better book. While the idea is clever (a story analogous to the wolf's defense in The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, which I loved), Maguire divests the story of all the humor and whimsy that such parodies usually possess. What is the appeal of Oz if there is no humor, no delight, no whimsy?

Not that I don't appreciate a dark tale--I consume dystopian fiction with gusto. But I think dark stories either need a healthy dose of humor (the two are not incompatible, after all), or the story needs to be about something real. There has to be some reason for the darkness--a social commentary, a cautionary tale.

Yet, Maguire seems to obliterate humor AND largely sidestep any kind of moral or lesson. The characters do appalling things, but the book never really comments on them. These immoral acts--adultery, neglect, selfishness, betrayal, apathy, laziness, murder, bullying, and a good deal of violence--are presented as commonplace, unremarkable, and ethically neutral, if not entirely acceptable. The only "crime" actually decried in the book is the treatment of Animals (talking, ensouled animals, like the talking beasts of Narnia) as mere animals (that is, chattel), indifference to their plight, and the murder of those who would stand up for the rights of Animal kind. And even these admittedly horrific acts fade over the course of the book. Elphaba's passion for defending them is lost in a morass of character changes that remain impenetrable to me even after finishing the book.
Maguire paints Elphaba's background quite creatively, and not unsympathetically, but the story falls apart as he encounters--and tries to incorporate--plot points from the original story. The characters stop behaving like themselves and start behaving like completely different people. Questions are posed but never answered. Motivations and loyalties are questioned but never resolved. By the end of the book, it was unclear why anyone was doing anything.

I was, however, struck by the prominent role of forgiveness in the story--definitely not what I expected in a story of the Wicked Witch of the West. It is interesting that Maguire presents the desire for forgiveness--and the frustration of that desire--as the strongest motivation in his book. Though again, even that motivation comes and goes as fits the author's fancy--it is, indeed, quite absent for a significant portion of the novel, only to resurface at the climax as a convenient way to amp up the tension.

I can see why the idea appeals to people, and indeed, there is a kernel of a good story here. From what I hear, the musical corrects some of the book's flaws, simplifies the convoluted plot, and adds a much-needed dash of humor and whimsy. And now that I've read the book, I can see the musical and judge for myself if it's any better than the rather unimpressive source material that inspired it.

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