Friday, January 15, 2010

Review: A Lion Among Men, by Gregory Maguire

Okay, I'm getting tired of it now. If A Lion Among Men were the second book in "The Wicked Years," I would have probably liked it as much as I liked the actual second book in "The Wicked Years." It's a similar formula: take a not-terribly-sympathetic minor character and flesh him out in context. It's the Cowardly Lion's backstory this time. We saw Brrr (did Baum name him that?) in a couple of brief cameos in Wicked, and now it's an illumination of the life lived in between being a motherless cub and a surprised, chucked-aside adult member of the Dorothy team, as well as some events after. More engagingly, Maguire also fleshes out several of the bizarre bit players that have been circling the margins of the story till now.

And really, more of this and less of that, please. It starts off well, with a heretofore rare Yackle point of view, a scene from the scarred eyes of the old bat that's been pestering the characters with prophetic catcalls for a couple of books now. She demands her fellow nuns to lower her into the crypt, to hasten the end of the burden of her life and sweep her out after a year. The suicide is a near-comical, near-chilling failure. Deliciously macabre, ("wicked"), which is not my go-to place for entertainment, but a hell of an entrance in this case. The other secondary characters are almost this good too, but soon enough we're with the Lion again, and his personal history gets the, um, Lion's share of print. Some new folds in the character are revealed, and it wasn't badly done, but it more colored in the outline of his character than expanded it. And it costs us readers 200 pages of retreading old backstory, even while the author is telegraphing a larger plot and doing nothing about it. Now that these Oz books are a committed series instead of an entertainingly revisionist standalone, now that it's a story arc in other words, there's an entirely different pacing at play. Or maybe it was all fine, and it was just too soon to get back in.

The history of the Cowardly Cub picks up after his escape from the University lab, and he finds himself in the wilderness, subsisting without meat, and, Frankenstein-like, without language. He picks up the art of words by spying on humans, and boy, he's quick with that. The author isn't about to let inexperience get in the way of a few good puns or a little witty banter. Like Shelley's creature, or like old Quasimodo, the young Lion craves acceptance, and commits love straightaway, which, due to his disconnectedness from the world, has brutish results. Neither does he fit in with Oz's disenfranchised talking Animals, and his life flits between the spheres, from an uncomfortable society Animal, to an uncomfortable outcast. Poor Brrr isn't quite as likable as he might be. He has a tendency for vanity, self-absorption and conflict-avoidance, but it's clear they'd have only ever been venial sins were he not pushed around by circumstances. The tragedies aren't so much that people suffer for his failures to act, but rather that he keeps ending up in situations where his inaction matters. A hard thing to illustrate.

Maguire, incidentally, is as breezy with his allusions as he is with the language (as he is with his pocket philosophizing, his character development, his geography, his law, economy, and politics), and let's not forget the essential silliness of the setting either. It's his talent as a writer to balance that playfulness elegantly with outsized, but sneakily substantial, seriousness. I was on about it last time, but it's probably why he's so busy reinventing these classic and fairytale settings.

I don't know that any of his character arcs have been fully redemptive, but I'll go as far as to spoil you this: the ending of this one, however mild a poke to the implacable machinery of history and chance it may have been, is genuinely uplifting and satisfying. I felt good when I finished reading it--not all I want out of literature, but a hell of a nice thing.


bright said...

Just skimmed this - my copy arrived from the library yesterday. I'll be back with a real comment in a few days.

Stayed up to finish The Lovely Bones. It's rather a mess.

Keifus said...

I don't quit reading easily, but that's not the case with my wife. She put down The Lovely Bones after teh first 2o pages or so. It's been kicking around the house for awhile.

Aaron said...

Did Maguire have to pay off or get permission from the Baum estate for these books, or are they a primary reason why more things should go into the public domain?

artandsoul said...

Your wife and I had the same experience with The Lovely Bones. I've offered it to others "Here read this, it's supposed to be good."

But not for me.

This review makes me want to go back to Maguire-land.

Keifus said...

Looked it up: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is in the public domain anyway. I think the text of the law reads "within the lifetime of the author plus however many years Walt Disney's been dead" so we're outside of it.

The setting is giving a playful dimension to balance things off of, and appears to be this author's general thing. (I have read less-good reviews of his wholly original novel, but what the hell, the guy actually got rich writing, and who can complain about that?) I wonder a little at what point the setting, or any mapped events, becomes a constraint.

Didn't know you went to law school, A&S.

artandsoul said...

I did. I went for 2 1/2 years. (Yes, I know it's a 3 year program.)

I hated it. Absolutely hated it. The schoolwork was fine. The people. I shudder.

Met my husband there, though. He was a teacher.


We got engaged, I withdrew, we got married ...

And well, I should shop this to Maguire.

Keifus said...

I first met my wife when I was her T.A. (Didn't break the rules; the relationsip came a little later, but I think it's a funny fact.)

artandsoul said...

I didn't take my husband's class. That was my 'bright line' defense against any accusation of preferential treatment, although there were no formal rules against teacher/student dating at the Law School. Just informal frowning from frumpy professors.

Neither of us is very aggressive or outrageous so being discreet was natural. Every now and then I felt rather secretive, and that was weird.

bright said...

Okay, I finally finished The Prisoner of Zenda, I'm starting Lion tonight.

Keifus said...


bright said...


It was the stack of work reading as well as $1.75 in library fines threatening me to finish this book already. Lion pales in comparison to its predecessors. Pales on purpose? Probably, given Maguire's talent.

Now there's that pesky story arc, so I'll be on the lookout for the next installment in The Wicked Years.