Sunday, March 4, 2012

REVIEW: Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire

It's been almost a month since I've posted which means it took me almost a month to read this; a combination of life events and Out of Oz being a particularly dense read. I've temporarily moved to Tasmania for a residency with Tasdance and with that, a range of social opportunities and a lot of other work involving my other projects, it's left me little spare time.

Out of Oz is the last book in the Wicked series on which the incredibly successful musical was based. I began it with a strange mixture of excitement and reluctance, for a few reasons. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West was absolutely mind-blowing, as was the sequel, Son of a Witch. They were the kind of books you read, thinking 'this is OK I guess' and then by the time you turn the final page you think 'that was the best thing I ever read.' The way that Maguire so cleverly worked with L. Frank Baum's tale of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was intensely satisfying, putting such a realistic and adult spin on an incredibly light-hearted and fanciful tale. The life of Elphaba and in the following book, Liir, was extremely captivating, especially when viewed in contrast to what we thought we knew about them from Baum's works.

Book three, A Lion Among Men was not so successful for me. I felt the series started to lose it's way here and any kind of point to it all became extremely vague. Not to mention that the Lion, Sir Brrr, which the book follows is incredibly boring and un-noteworthy. The best part of Son of a Witch was the legacy of Elphaba and this was kind of side boarded. So while I really enjoyed the overall story and Maguire's unique writing style, I was a little worried Out of Oz would be further a let down a trip into further obscurity.

To start with I want to talk about Maguire's writing style, which is by far the most outstanding thing about these books, and in fact most of his others. Even though he writes fantasy, Maguire does away with any and all notions of theatrics or romanticism, instead simply delivering the cold hard reality. In fiction and even non-fiction this is extremely rare. There are no miracles, no bizarre twists of fate, no demonstrations of incredible talent or power, no emotional reunions, no loves so deep you cannot swim to the bottom and in fact very little use of any kind of archetypal character. The characters make stupid decisions sometimes, they fail, they piss and they die without a fanfare of emotions and dramatic writing. It is really the closest writing to true reality that I have come across.

This has its pros and cons. It is immensely gratifying to read something so raw and true which is also incredibly subtle and gives a huge amount of credit to the intelligence of the reader. But then again, sometimes, especially when reading fantasy, we all want a bit of drama and a bit of magic! Key moments that were walked through as if they were any other were sometimes a little dissatisfying ... but in this book I don't think I would have had it any other way.

At times I found the story itself a little winding and laborious, but in hindsight it is easy to see how even the more dull parts are included for their authenticity, to bring back down to Earth the fanciful romantics of previous tales of Oz. This book after all dwarfs all of its predecessors. 

The best thing about Out of Oz was the enormity of the history and the legacy. For most of the time we follow Elphaba's son Liir, his wife Candle and their daughter, Elphaba's granddaughter, Rain - who was also born green. Coupled with the omnipresent tension of Elphaba's mysterious death/disappearance and the family's struggle to reconcile with their place in history and to continue Elphaba's legacy (or not), this gave an incredible depth the the world and characters that transcended any previous Oz literature and most other fantasies I have read. I think this was helped along by my incredible love of the Broadway musical and my attachment to Elphaba both in the musical and in the story. This is where Out of Oz succeeded for me where A Lion Among Men did not. Her life was really such a non-event and a tragedy from beginning to end, yet the repercussions of her actions and her life left a mark like none other. It's incredibly beautiful and touching.

I loved how this book worked through the events of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz' sequel, Return to Oz and featured Mombey and the return of Dorothy Gale. 

Rain was a real highlight for me. As a child with an incredible legacy and potential to change the events of Oz, she is presented as any other without any remarkable qualities or traits - incredibly refreshing after all the child prodigies out there these days. She struggles to grasp the enormity of the world and events unfolding around her and things such as her unenthusiastic yet realistic reunion with her family were appreciated when another author may have made it all about hugs and tears and the formation of an instant bond. None of this codswallop for Maguire thank you very much.

The relationship of Rain and Tip was handled exquisitely, especially at the end when events take a bizarre turn. It's no story book romance where they instantly fall in love and cannot be parted. It's a gradual and unproclaimed love of fresh adults, which is told almost obliquely and beautiful to experience. It is during this period where we finally see Rain start to become a young adult and begin to interact with the world around her too.

The ending is a little unresolved but could we really expect anything else? It's not as if Elphaba was going to suddenly reappear, or Rain was going to make some final flight over the Emerald City on her grandmother's broom - that would be far too romantic. The final pages however were a little too obscure for me and I did question some of the final moments and decisions of the author.

For anyone that is frustrated by the blase nature of this narrative, I would suggest that you are putting expectations on it that don't belong there. Don't start reading Maguire thinking it's going to be a happy endings fantasy story like any other. I feel that when you start to appreciate the honesty the story gives and the overwhelming faith it has in its readers, you will appreciate the beauty in it.

1 comment:

  1. I never got on with Wicked, but it was years & years back I tried it, on a longhaul flight so maybe I didn't give it much of a chance in retrospect. One of these days I'll have to give it another go.