no good deed goes unpunished

24Sep09
In my literary life, there is love and there is hate. I rarely close a book and say, “Eh, it was just okay.” If I don’t like it, I put it down. But if I love it, I refuse to let go of it.

Almost everyone I know who has read or attempted to read Wicked, Gregory Maguire’s imagined, revisionist prequel to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, has said it’s slow and awful and exhausting to get through. I’ve heard it’s disappointing compared to the musical, compared to the 1939 film, compared to Baum’s originial. I’ve heard it’s strange and bizarre and unusual. So when I attempted to read it last year, I approached it with that mindset. And I hated it. All five pages I made it through.

And then I saw Wicked on stage last weekend and figured it couldn’t really be that far off the book, could it? And if I loved the musical so much, I couldn’t really hate the book, could I?

No, I couldn’t.

It’s easy to understand why some people would be put off by the novel. The musical is sort of a mindless melodrama, with darker themes, yes; but the novel is philosophical, political, and haunting. It comes as a bit of a shock after all that singing and dancing. And so, yes, understandably, readers expecting Glinda to float around in a bubble are going to be surprised to instead find a pertinent discussion of human rights, power, and the nature of evil.

The scope of Maguire’s story was breathtaking. From the thoroughly imagined personalities of his characters (and they are as much his as they are Baum’s), to the details of Oz and it’s four countries, to the philosophies, mythologies, and allegories hiding just under the surface of his words. Fashioning characters and telling their story is difficult enough when the medium is strictly fiction. When it’s a fantasy world they inhabit, and somebody else’s fantasy world, at that, the talent required for an author to pull off that trick successfully is incredible.

A friend recently told me that he wasn’t ever able to develop any kind of concern for or relationship with the characters in Maguire’s world. I disagree, and personally, I loved the novel. I devoured Wicked in three days and found myself really attached to Elphaba. Part of it might be that I tended to share her worldview, part of it might be that I felt really and truly sorry for her. I think a lot of it was just that so many of the mistakes she made were not mistakes: they were actions with results gone awry, or they were careful decisions completely misinterpreted by the rest of the world. Elphaba’s life was a series of miscommunications, of missed communications, and a tragic lack of understanding.

Sure, she was haughty and bitter and even, on ocassion, a little mean-spirited. But never wicked, never evil. Essentially, that’s the question left burning in the reader’s mind when the last page is turned: What is evil? Is it, as so many characters in the book claim, an absence of goodness? Is it a tangible thing each of us are in danger of picking up? Is it determined by our intentions or our actions? And why was Elphaba so willing to assign the label of Wicked to herself?

He lingered at the door, and said, “The Lion wants courage, the Tin Man a heart, and the Scarecrow brains. Dorothy wants to go home. What do you want?”
…She couldn’t say forgiveness, not to Liir. She started to say “a soldier,” to make fun of his mooning affections over the guys in uniform. But realizing even as she said it that he would be hurt, she caught herself halfway, and in the end what came out of her mouth surprised them both. She said, “A soul–“

In the end, Elphaba is a sad, tragic heroine. She’s wracked with guilt–for her sister, for her father, for Doctor Dillamond, for Fiyero, especially Fiyero, and even later, for his family. She’s consumed with grief and frustration and the fear of being used against her will. But she’s likable, and she’s deeply human.

Maguire poses several questions in Wicked, but answers few. One of the cool things about this novel is its ability to both reframe a well-known story and to explore the unknown hows and whys of the Wicked Witch of the West. But his diction is lush and rich, and maybe the best thing about this novel is the way Maguire encourages his reader to fall in love with the magic of the English language all over again.

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