Saturday, January 21, 2012

“Out of Oz”: “The Wicked Years” Concludes

An Autographed Copy

      Gregory Maguire’s Out of Oz was released in November and I read it over the holiday break.  Neil asked me why I don’t write book reviews.  It’s because books don’t have the same currency as movies and, to some extent, television.  Plus, the book audience is more segmented than those for other media.  However, books are worth more than other forms of media because they can be kept longer, referred to more thoroughly, and lent to others.  So, I may as well start with a book that meant a lot to me because the original Wicked
(published in 1995, though I didn’t read it until 1998) is a contemporary classic and one of the dozen best novels I’ve ever read.  Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, is an extraordinarily compelling character because she’s like Joan of Arc battling the patriarchy, exemplified by the Wizard.  And yes, he’s figuratively and literally her patriarch in that book.  Maguire’s use and play on language in that book was startling.  At times, he seemed to be making up words to describe feelings you might have had, but couldn’t verbalize.  Maguire’s field of study in the disciplines of literature, children’s literature, and art history is a profound resource for this type of linguistic celebration.  (It’s akin to what George W. Bush did later, but that was mainly because W. didn’t quite have the English words to begin with, though he is bilingual, a closely guarded secret that might have terrified the Anglo Republican base).

      The second book in this tetralogy was Son of a Witch (2005) in which the reader wonders about the true identity of Liir, the boy who lived in the Witch’s castle.  Where Wicked was an allegory for Hitler’s Germany, I thought that Son and particularly the character of Shell – the Emperor of Oz – was an allegory for W’s America (and the author did not disabuse me of that notion when I asked him).  The book also had one of the best final sentences of any recent novel.  Don’t cheat and read that sentence first.  A Lion Among Men was all about Brrr, the Cowardly Lion, and dealt both with his life and guilt over his cowardice and the formation and development of folk legends, an allegory perhaps for contemporary media and the plus ça change, plus ça la même chose life cycle of any subject masticated and spat out by the electronic chattering classes.  It was my least favorite of the four books because it seemed to be a narrative cul-de-sac from the first two books.  Lisa enjoyed its handling of the Cowardly Lion and that focus on what seemed to be a secondary character.

The Land of Oz Map
      Brrr reappears in Out of Oz as a major character and now what Maguire was doing in the third book makes sense in the overall design.  Liir, Candle, and Nor are major characters in this last book.  Galinda reappears (she’s been the character that’s appeared the most in the series) and has a vital connection to Rain, who may have a blood connection to Elphaba.  And yes, read carefully, because Maguire implies that Elphaba reappears at the end of the current book. 

      However, it’s Rain who dominates this work and she is the most compelling character in this series since Elphaba, which is pretty terrific since this is the final book.  The work follows her from seven years old until she’s in her late teens.  Wicked seemed to take place in a parallel world to the U.S. in the 1890s.  This book takes place in that same world of Oz in 1906.  The reason a reader would know this is because Dorothy Gale returns to Oz because she’s thrown back there this time, not because of a tornado, but because of the San Francisco earthquake.   

      Many of Maguire’s major themes and symbols for our contemporary world are revisited in this book including the relations between various ethnicities of humanlike characters with one another and animals and the environment.  The conflict between a philosophy based upon the natural world and a religious fervor based upon some type of spiritual narrative describes the cultural epoch of the Land of Oz.  This is a thrilling fantasy and, hopefully, will serve as an entrée to Maguire’s other pretty wondrous novels, especially Mirror, Mirror, his re-examination of the Snow White story, but set during the Italian Renaissance with the powerful, decadent Borgias as the villains.

I think I'd get lost wandering around the Land of Oz.  It makes me feel all GREEN!

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