Saturday, January 01, 2011

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

The Heroine: Elphaba Thropp, a.k.a. "The Wicked Witch of the West." Apparently born mean and green, this neglected daughter of an aristocrat and a religious minister nevertheless seeks to understand her world and whether she can make a difference in it, despite her outcast status.
The Rub: The land of Oz has been overtaken by a despotic Wizard and his repressive government - is Elphaba doing the right thing by fighting against what she believes is evil? Or by doing so is she becoming a different kind of evil?

The Supporting Cast:

Galinda/Glinda: Elphaba's blond, popular classmate at Shiz University. Privileged, spoiled, but still pestered by a burgeoning social conscience.

Boq: Short Munchinkinlander with a crush on Glinda, who is nevertheless one of the first people to befriend Elphaba and become involved in her causes.

Nessarose: Elphaba's crippled sister, and their father's favourite. First owner of the Ruby Slippers. Possibly a religious fanatic.

Nanny: Elphaba and Nessarose's childhood nurse. Total Bad-Ass MoFo.

Fiyero: A nomadic Arjiki prince who meets Elphaba in Shiz University, and later conducts a romantic affair with her.

The Wizard: Big Ol' Bag of Dicks, politics-wise. A very bad dude.

Madame Morrible: Head of Shiz University, and a very bad dudette - and a possible recruiter for the Wizard's secret service.

The Word:
I hate books that don't make sense.

I really hate well-reviewed, "literary" books that don't make sense, because as little as I want to admit it, I sometimes do buy into the Emperor's New Clothes aspect of literary reception - where if I don't enjoy or "get" a well-received book, I tend to think it's because something is wrong with me rather than with the book itself. I'm too stupid to get the references. I'm too shallow or superficial to enjoy the theological and moral debates. I'm an ignorant philistine, etc. etc.

Well, that's how I feel about Wicked. But by now, after years of reviewing, I should know better. I should believe that with my intelligence, education, and experience, if I don't like a book, there is a reason for it. It may not be everyone's reason, but it's mine, and I'll try to explain it.

I opened this book expecting it to be a character study - a view of The Wizard of Oz from the side of the Wicked Witch of the West. However, characters factor fairly low on the novel's list of priorities - along with consistent worldbuilding and fantasy development.

But to make this fun - let's have the Wicked Drinking Game, where we take a shot every time we have a plot point that's unexplained or a newly introduced idea that goes nowhere.

In the eastern corner of Oz (Munchkinland), the wife of a minister gives birth to a green baby with sharp, sharklike teeth. How does this happen, exactly? Take a shot. However, the minister takes this as a sign from the Unnamed God that he's being punished for a lack of faith and decides to become more aggressive in his ministry, going so far as to uproot his young family and make them all missionaries.

The novel shoots ahead many years later, as a privileged, social-climbing upper-class girl named Galinda arrives at the prestigious Shiz University only to discover she'll be rooming with a strange, green girl named Elphaba. Despite her initial dislike of her prickly roommate who prefers speaking in stilted, pretentious dialogue (why? Take a shot!) Galinda and Elphaba grow closer in their studies, eventually learning that life in Oz outside the walls of the university is not as rose-tinged as their Head, Madame Morrible, would have them believe. Prejudice and bigotry run rampant, especially against Animals (note the capitalization - animals with sentience and the power of speech), and the Wizard who rules Oz apparently supports their disenfranchisement.

Despite their growing friendship, Galinda and Elphaba change when their Goat instructor, Professor Dillamond, is brutally murdered. When their attempt to bring the matter of the Professor's research of the true differences between Humans and Animals to the Wizard is disregarded, Elphaba decides to drop out of sight and join an underground resistance against the Wizard's tyranny, while Glinda, rather randomly, marries an old, rich dude (why? Take a shot!).

But that whole Animal prejudice business, is it resolved or even a major part of the plot? Take a shot! After this scene, the rest of the book really gives up on any kind of coherent plot, and mainly follows Elphaba around until the inevitable clash with Dorothy. She spends time as a terrorist, falls in love with a (married) former classmate, tries to make amends with the spurned wife of said classmate after their affair goes horribly awry, unintentionally kills two people with her thoughts (how? Take a shot!), and decides to refer to herself as a Witch despite possessing no inborn magical talent (why?? Take another freakin' shot!).

The story is built around all these random encounters, interactions that go nowhere, magical powers or objects that magically appear right when they're most needed and go away when they're not, none of which are explained. Similarly, the characters don't really act like people - their decisions and actions and reactions seem very abrupt and convenient.

Which makes the type of book I least like to read: the Idea-Driven Book. A book where the author has an Idea, one they want to explore and discuss, but instead of making a long-ass essay about it, they try to explain and display their Idea within the context of a narrative. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but in the more extreme cases of Idea-Driven Books, the strength of the Idea comes at the expense of the Characters - in Wicked's case, the characters and the magical plot devices and the worldbuilding are all ciphers meant to help explain the Idea, rather than narrative elements that are well-developed on their own.

In Wicked's case, the Idea is Morality - what it is? What affects it? How does religion affect it? How does the lack of religion affect morality? How does morality change or suffer when it has to be applied by one dominant person to a large group? And while it's certainly a worthy idea for discussion, I think the examination of morality in the characters is doomed to fail if one doesn't bother to examine or develop the characters themselves.

I sympathized with Elphaba occasionally, but more frequently I was put off by the stilted dialogue, her sudden shifts in mood or temperament, or the random and unexplained appearance of a magical object that directly influences her character development (like the flying broomstick, a truly puzzling plot device - who exactly gave it to her and why? Take a shot!).

So as it was, the book failed to grab me. It's dark, it's depressing, it's frequently nonsensical and inconsistent and pretentious. I like to read about characters that act like people, and not like puppets for rhetoric. Failing to grasp the brilliance of Wicked may make me a phillistine, but so be it.
C

7 comments:

  1. I'm right there with you on this one. I mostly hated this book and really wished he could've done a better job with the characters, the plot and the pacing. (I didn't much care for Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister either BTW.) The author seems bent on washing all the joy and fun right out of his source material in favor of pseudo-literary ideas. On the other hand, I was given tix to see "Wicked" the musical a few years ago and it was pretty fantastic. (Oddly enough some plot points that seemed utterly inexplicable in the book were explained coherently in the musical; i.e. the color of her skin is due to the large amount of green "elixer" her mother imbibed while pregnant.) If you get a chance, go see the musical!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I really disliked this one when I first read it as well. Nothing seemed to make sense and I thought the story was confusing and disjointed. I'm definitely glad to hear I'm not the only one!

    I was so irritated at this book that I resisted seeing the musical for ages, thinking it would be more of the same. Like mepamelia says above, though - it's a lot of fun and does a much better job of the 'whys' and 'wherefores'.

    It's now one of my favorites - which had me thinking I should re-read the book to see if I missed the fun first time around. But you've made me re-think that...it sounds like it's exactly the way I remember it!

    ReplyDelete
  3. i also loved the musical, but it sounds like i would hate the book too. i often dislike a lot of the "oprah bookclub" or high brow "popular literary fiction" choices out there for trying too hard. and also feel like im not getting "it". but everyone looks for something different in a book. i just want to be entertained 99% of the time. not be bombarded with capital i "Ideas."

    ReplyDelete
  4. I have heard of Gregory Maguire's books, but never read them. I did watch the adaptation of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and enoyed it.

    If this book wasn't your cup of tea, I'd recommend Angela Carter. I don't know if you've read any of her books, but she has a collection of short stories based on fairytales. It's called The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. I've studied some of them at college and they're really interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Well, I certainly am glad I'm not the only one who didn't like or "get" "Wicked"!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I'm glad I didn't read it! The musical is so much better. The stuff that you need to take a shot for is explained in the musical (e.g. she's green cos mum had an affair with a dude selling green potions and she drank one...) Give the musical a go, if you get the chance. It's lovely :)

    @tsinelas

    ReplyDelete
  7. Karina3:57 AM

    I'm so glad I'm not the only one that thinks this. I read the book several years ago, and even though I finished it, I really disliked it, and couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. At last I'm not alone :)

    ReplyDelete