It’s not easy being green

12 08 2009

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

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When I was in my early twenties, I was slightly obsessed with the Wizard of Oz books, specifically the original series – the ones written by L Frank Baum, not the later, non-canonical texts.  I have the centennial edition, the pop-up and the subsequent 13 sequels.  I even read Was, which I’d recommend avoiding if you were considering it (the Dorothy element of the novel tells how Baum taught a nasty girl called Dorothy who was being sexually abused by Uncle Henry and Aunt Em so wrote her into the story as a happy nice child.  The other elements were good but that thread made me feel nauseated).  I’m not really sure what prompted the fascination, it didn’t particularly relate to the film in any way, and it receded when I got into proper Fairy Stories whilst writing my dissertation.  So this book was a very welcome addition to my collection when Cheryl gave it to me for my birthday a few years ago; and it was also very well remembered by her that I wanted it, given a passing comment in a bookshop some months earlier!

Sadly, once I’d read it, it became a slightly less welcome addition to my collection.  I’m struggling to think of one scene that I enjoyed.  The book is aspiring to provide a sympathetic backstory to the Wicked Witch of the West and opens with her parents having an argument about whether her father Frexspar, a local minister for the Unnamed God, should go and preach against the Clock of the Time Dragon when her mother Melena is so heavily pregnant.  He insists on going and it attacked by angry locals who have been influenced by the Pfaithers who own the Clock – meanwhile Melena gives birth to a green baby with pointy pointy teeth who they call Elphaba.  She then confesses to Nanny (I couldn’t tell if they were related or if that was just the woman’s name) that she isn’t sure if Frex is the father, because she regularly chews a narcotic leaf and can’t remember if she’d cheated on her huband or not.  (It does transpire who the father is eventually, if you’re curious.)  Within a few months of the birth, a traveller named Turtle Heart has moved in with the family and is enjoying the marital bed with Melena while Frex is out preaching.  Once again, Melena is pregnant and doesn’t know who the father is.  Once again, Melena gives birth to a weird-lookin’ baby – the Wicked Witch of the East.  Fast-forward 15 years and Elphaba is attending the University in Shiz, rooming with an airheaded girl by the name of Galinda who doesn’t like to be called Glinda.  She has grown into an iron-willed young woman with a pathological hatred of rain and is influenced by the passion of her Goat professor, Doctor Dillamond, into standing up for the rights of Animals (as opposed to animals) who are being forced into slavery for starving Munchkinlander famers.

You can't tell, but he's thinking about genetics at the moment

You can't tell, but he's thinking about genetics at the moment

Maguire has created a whole universe for the land of Oz, giving each area of the land a different culture and set of religious beliefs and customs.  It’s nigh on impossible to keep track of who believes in Unionism, Pfaith, Royalism or Lurlinism; whether the Gillikanese think they are superior to the Munchkinlanders or the Quadlings; what on earth all the random titles mean (Thropp Third Descending, Arduennas of Upland); or really why I should care.  He has transformed the utopic landscape from the original into a hellish mid-industrial revolution mire, the yellow brick road is a bane to the taxpayers, as is the Oz-wide transit system that is apparently destroying Munchkin farmland.  Meanwhile, the delicate swampland ecosystem in the Quadling part of Oz is being decimated by the Wizard’s hunt for rubies.

The problem with the world-building in Wicked is that the various religions and cultures make little-to-no sense without a person to associate them with and Maguire hops from one new character to another for the first 100 or so pages.  Every time the plot starts to flow, he moves the story to another location, time or viewpoint, and even the people have erratic and variable characteristics.  I suspect I would have given this an easier time in the review had I not found all of the characters so incredibly unlikeable.  The world of Baum’s Oz is ripe for rewriting; he originally created it as a the first American fairy story and I don’t doubt that updating or expanding it could be fascinating and worthwhile.  But the author only takes the negative parts of American history – the drought of the Thirties, slavery, McCarthyism – for his narrative.  The witch seems less Wicked in the context of an evil world.

There are some interesting details, such as Elphaba’s name coming from the initials L.F.B (L Frank Baum), but on the whole the author’s revisionist look at Oz feels like it rips to shreds the innocent and sweet world from the original.  It’s probably a bit more interesting in the stage version, but I doubt I’d ever go see it, because I really didn’t enjoy this at all.

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