Thursday, October 29, 2009

Review: Son of a Witch, by Gregory Maguire

On the face of it, "The Wicked Years" series, which re-examines, of all things, L. Frank Baum's Oz to uncover all sorts the bitter political tension and personal injustice lurking beneath the children's narrative, is not high on the list of books that really needed to be written. Wicked only entered my consciousness because it was ubiquitous in the airports, and little did I realize that it'd already been adapted to a popular musical, and following that, Maguire was moved to write sequels. I could have bought a Wicked tote bag with my purchase if I wanted to, and the book came with a sheet of little promotional witchy stickers. Now that I'm into the series, it means that I'm in on the whole phenomenon, and I hate that! Thanks a lot, bright.

I liked how Wicked managed to carve out a complex and sympathetic individual out of what had heretofore been a cardboard evil, and Son of a Witch performs the same feat for what had been, until then, a non-character. I don't mean to say that Liir had been overlooked by the author, but rather that he was written as a Ralph Wiggum, an unwelcome tagalong of probable-but-unsure progeny, an uncomfortable little non-sequitur, a chubby blank slate of a kid that tended to gravitate toward authority only to get ignored or abused by it. [And why "Liir"? I'm pretty sure he's Maguire's creation, and it's a name with mountains of connotation for an English-language writer, approximately none of which is yet evident.]

The bulk of the second novel has Liir, older now, struggling to fill in the body of motivations and sympathies that drives ordinary people, and to get past his own burgeoning self-contempt at this apartness. Liir witnesses state-sanctioned horrors, but nonetheless gravitates to an anonymous military career as a means to keep himself fed, and because it relieves him of choosing his own path. The atrocities that he sees--and under orders, finally commits--eventually break through his rationalizations, and the plot is pieced together from that point, but I wouldn't call it an epiphany. The compelling part about the character is that there is no moral bluster about his conversion, and there's not really any forgiveness. Liir retains much of his fundamental weakness and bitterness, but (I don't think it's spoiling the novel to say), he manages to move history forward through what would only be called strength of character by an outside observer. It's a well-handled balance, and it is satisfying that Maguire had no obligation to topple the edifice of Liir's individuality to satisfy the source material, like he did with the original witch. The world of the sequel is, on the whole, better thought-out and fit-together than in Wicked, as the best middles often are.

The blurbs spin the series as an analysis of the subtleties of good and evil. I don't think that's accurate. Elphaba (the witch) and Liir have unlovable personality faults (a simmering misanthropy in the former, an uncentered character in the latter), but their sin is dissidence and their motivations for revolt are humanitarian (or rather, Animalitarian). It's certainly not malice. The evil in the book is the official sort, popular, codified and systemic, but it is not vague. If there is difficult nuance at work here, it comes from mapping this story onto the original Oz books, and onto our lives outside of the book.

Maguire doesn't quite cross the line into political and religious satire though, even if he gets close, and the story isn't exactly a "straight" version of fantasy either, as there is some typical magic-and-wonder stuff here, and things seem to behave, at least partly, by fairyland rules. Like many a good fantasy yarn, the whole thing is set in motion by an external cross-worlds plot device that unfolds like destiny, but played out by typical human motivations. Or maybe not typically human. The characters border on the archetypical, but don't quite get there either. Our Ozians seem to be, as a rule, more articulate, intelligent and self-aware than your normal Earthling (and to be more than they imagine themselves). Letting every character be a walking info-dump, even a coy one, can be annoyingly facile, but I found that I liked it here, found it organic to Maguire's not-quite-mythical Elsewhere. Early in the book, for example, Liir has a conversation with the Scarecrow (that one), who reveals himself as a political pawn, and gives the boy some advice. The wordplay on knowledge is entertaining, and it's clear that the Scarecrow is a canny but self-deprecating fellow, whose brains, or lack thereof, are more about ignorance than anything. What little we see of Dorothy, we find her more normal by human standards, which is to say direct, insipid, and loathed.

A land like Oz (which let's not forget, was originally written as a sort of escape from midwestern life of the Populist era) is ripe for this sort revisionism--the story of such a harmonious productive land really does have a resemblance to some bullshit political propaganda. The land is a little weird. It feels a little small and underpopulated (the approximate acrage of Kansas seems about the biggest it might be) to support that combination of diversity, technology, military and economy, and no one really marvels at these malevolent, intelligent dragons, which are dispatched from the plot far too easily and anticlimactically (even if teh circumstances worked well for the characters). The landscape seems artificial and staged compared to the reality of the characters, and I want to compare it to books that explore human nature honestly, but in odd microcosm, like, as I mentioned last time, The Iron Dragon's Daughter, or John Crowley's The Deep. But for all that, the Wicked years don't quite trip over into allegory either. If anything, Maguire twists this notion just a little more, intending that our world--Dorothy's world--imitates theirs as much as the reverse, where we are the alien.

So, it's a more interesting literary niche than the embossed, cut-out covers and the popularity would have you believe, but I seem to recall a saying about that. Strong in character and an intriguing setting. I bought the third one, but discreetly. I neglected the tote bag.

[As an aside: there was a musical instrument featured that had two sets of strings, one across the other at right angles. I took it that the second set wasn't fingered or plucked (although maybe they could be struck), and was meant to resonate with notes on the normal set. I thought it was a clever idea which may actually work. I'm not sure how much just-resonating strings would add, and if the thing wasn't perfectly tuned, I think they'd sound like total ass, but still. Is the instrument completely made up?]


bright said...

Excellent review. Thanks.

Michael said...

Good stuff Keifus, as always.

Kinda embarrassed to admit that my (ex) wife had to explain most of the symbolism in Oz to me. I got the poppy field thing straight off, but I had no idea just how political Baum was being with the yellow brick road and the lion etc. I thought he was just lampooning greed.

Also, I can't imagine how you'd build such an instrument. Round frame with two intersecting fret boards?

Keifus said...

I had actually figured it was escapism from the dustbowl/depression years, but it was written earlier. Musta been thinking of the movie. I would have never picked up on much of the specifics either.

My theory about that sort of thing (the Alice books are thick with it too) is that it's the same sort of pop cultural reference that you found in Bugs Bunny cartoons and which the (worse) kids movies are thick with today. Lazy comedy writing really (much as it pains me to knock Loonie Tunes), but some of 'em go timeless anyway.

Bright, if you don't mind, please let me know when Harry Potter is no longer popular. I'll try to check it out then.


Cindy said...

I read "Wicked" when it first came out and thought it was wonderfully clever.

I enjoyed the musical, but it didn't get under my skin like the old Rogers & Hammerstein musicals did.

I have a few of Maguire's others, but not Son of a Witch. I like fairy tale retellings. There are some good ones out there.

I've not been reading much online, and I've missed you all.

Keifus said...

I know what you mean--I'm also having a hard time keeping up.

What other good ones are out there, do you think? A lot of these have themes that are pretty universal, and had been adult stories before they became kiddie fare. I like when that sort of thing is revisited in a general sense.

bright said...

I was lukewarm about this one, but YMMV.

The Twitards have dragged off most of the fanboys/girls from the HPverse, so have at it. Your secret will be safe with me. (You could knock back the first 3 in a day or so.)

twif said...

HP is an easy, entertaining read. but if you're looking for a series to occupy your leisure reading, i'm going to direct you (unless i already have) brother cadfael. that series is what got me into mystery novels.

Keifus said...

Twif, I remember a comment of yours that you planned to relax with brother cadfael...I assumed it was some obscure brand of single malt.

Meh, it's hard to knock anything off too quickly, but I feel it's a good idea to have that sort of thing lying around (not that it does that much good). My daughter is currently reading this series, which looks awfully crappy to me, but it's better to be reading something.

Cindy said...

Try these:

'Cant' Catch Me' by Michael Cadnum

'Into the Wild' and 'Out of the Wild' by Sarah Beth Durst

These are written for YA but I found them very readable, enjoyable and complicated enough that even a very advanced reader could find something to like.

'Kissing The Witch' by Emma Donoghue written more for adults but I say this only because if some people think kids shouldn't read books that present homosexuality in any kind of positive light. Not that this book indoctrinates anyone into being gay, but it doesn't follow prescribed gender roles ... I found that one of its better points, but that's just me.

twif said...

nah. cadfael is welsh anyway. he's an ex-crusader turned benedictine monk, solving mysteries during the civil war twixt king stephen & empress maud.

Keifus said...

Good young adult literature can also be good literature. (I'm pretty okay with questioning the boundaries too--a good reason to read at all, especially if you are a young adult.)

Sigh. You guys have made my list a lot longer.