Home > Culture, Literature, Reviews > Progressive Cynicism on the Yellow Brick Road: Gregory Maguire’s Out of Oz

Progressive Cynicism on the Yellow Brick Road: Gregory Maguire’s Out of Oz

As popular as they are with readers, Gregory Maguire’s The Wicked Years books occupy a curious position in several cultural realms. Among mass market fantasy fiction series, they are undoubtedly less prominent than contemporary series like Harry Potter and Twilight, their themes more subtle and nebulous, their writing less immediately intelligible, their finer features far more particular. In the context of Ozian pastiche, it is generally welcomed as a revisionist take on the fanciful but childish kid-lit oeuvre of Oz’s creator, L. Frank Baum, but there is nothing gentle about this revision: it is an out-and-out inversion of Baum’s initial implications.

Even in terms of The Wicked Years’ own profile in popular culture, the stylish, nuanced, literary depiction of Oz provided in Maguire’s books has been obliterated by the gaudy Broadway adaptation of the first book, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. The musical subbed in soft-focus juvenile romance and lame inspirational platitudes for Maguire’s sharper Oz of political atrocities and existential ambivalence, but audiences responded warmly to the music and to the knowing tweaks of a classic childhood narrative. Maguire himself didn’t seem to mind the changes either, and even dedicated Wicked’s sequel Son of a Witch to the original Broadway cast (surely the copious royalties from the show stilled any creative qualms that might have arisen).

As Maguire wraps up The Wicked Years quadrilogy with Out of Oz, it is worth considering what his unique vision of Oz ultimately constitutes. First and foremost among the series’ qualities is Maguire’s prose style. Despite his fantastical subject matter and the kid-lit lineage of his chosen world, Maguire’s writing is extremely literary and highly written. His descriptions are full of peculiar vocabulary choices that are no less evocative for their peculiarity, giving his magical steampunk Oz a level of detail that is easily exploited on many occasions.

The dialogue, meanwhile, is aggressively clever, indeed often unrealistically so. Wit is evidently the birthright of every denizen of Oz, as even unschooled fugitives from civilization spit out a litany of bon mots like so many rakish drawing-room bon vivants. The dialogue exchanges are consistently entertaining as well as being key conduits for Maguire’s often vicious sense of irony, but can get distractingly precious nonetheless (as in an apparent teenage boy using the term “studied ineffectuality”, for instance, although perhaps that’s meant to be a hint).

Leaving Maguire’s notable style aside, though, what of his narrative, his characters, his themes? As the final act in a saga full to bursting of deferred closure, Out of Oz has an unenviable task of wrapping up literally dozens of individual character arcs and embedded subplots, as well as resolving the more general plot of the novels, namely the political and social fate of Oz itself.

At the conclusion of the last volume, A Lion Among Men, Munchkinland had seceded from Loyal Oz (the main state in the realm, centered on the Emerald City and the aristocratic northern province of Gillikin) and triggered a war that, by the time of Out of Oz, has become bitterly drawn-out. Lady Glinda (the erstwhile Good Witch of the North) is under house arrest by order of General Cherrystone of the Oz army, who is using her estate to prepare and launch a secretive assault on a lakefront Munchkinlander fortress. Sir Brrr (better known as the Cowardly Lion) is lingering nearby with the escorts of the enigmatic Clock of the Time Dragon, a puppet-show theatre contraption with intentions of its own and a taste for pointed sociopolitical satire. The Clock conceals the Grimmerie, an ancient and powerful magical book once possessed by Wicked’s protagonist, Elphaba Thropp, the Wicked Witch of the West. Like the Clock, the Grimmerie seems to be vaguely sentient and reveals its trove of spells to only a select few of its choosing, but that doesn’t prevent it from being sought by both sides in the war as the ultimate weapon with which to turn the tide.

Meanwhile, Liir, Elphaba’s squib offspring and the focal point of Son of a Witch, has been in hiding with his hippie wife Candle since the end of that book. With them, or possibly not, is their daughter, revealed at the end of Son of a Witch with the splendid closing phrase “she cleaned up green.” And as if all of that wasn’t enough for one book, guess who’s back in Oz? That all-earnest, all-singing, witch-killing Kansan schoolgirl Dorothy Gale, arriving not with the wind this time but on the figurative back of an earthquake (the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, to be exact) and destined for a propagandistic show trial in Munchkinland.

If this sounds like a massive cargo for one literary vessel to carry, it is. Out of Oz bursts at the seams with narrative detail and background exposition; Maguire even feels the need to awkwardly stop the story at one point and send a series of characters out on leisurely nature walks with Liir, to fill out the backstories that he left out until that moment. Still, he manages to balance the flood of information with the more delicate bildungsroman elements, as Rain, the aforementioned granddaughter of a witch, comes of age and grows into her inheritance as a being of magical ability and, of course, as a person.

Indeed, Out of Oz, like all of the Wicked books, is a patchwork quilt of genre pastiches of which the coming-of-age novel is only one fabric sample. Maguire uses these books as dioramas for his adaptive abilities, trying out the settings, moves, and poses of his influences, especially those from English canonical literature. The book begins with a parody of British novels of manners set in palatial country estates, as Lady Glinda and Cherrystone (Maguire’s most effective representation of the rigid, rational cruelty of institutions) face off over polite dinners while the former’s freedoms are increasingly curtailed and the latter’s war machine is gradually built up.

There’s a considerable amount of travel through the wilderness after this, as in the epic quest narratives of myth and fantasy fiction, and a destructive and deadly siege of the Emerald City by dragons that invokes not only the siege of Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings, but also the grim survivalism of literature about the Blitz. Maguire even finds time for a brief but charming boarding-school-novel interlude, Rain’s enrollment at a private girl’s academy in the college town of Shiz connecting her to Elphaba’s formative attendance of the university in the same town in Wicked.

Ultimately, Maguire’s Wicked Years books have another closer analogue, namely Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Although The Wicked Years is much livelier, funnier, less ponderous and more humane than Pullman’s famous fictionalized argument for atheism, their questing travails and philosophical outlooks are both similar. More vital, however, is the evidently shared aspiration to employ a form so often yoked to stiff traditionalism to express modern progressive anxieties. Maguire and Pullman boast a comparable trenchant liberalism and an attendant distrust for religious demagogues and power-hungry political charlatans. He even quite purposefully dismantles the famous conservative epigram from the end of The Wizard of Oz film, insisting that upon reaching adulthood, “our adventures secure us in our isolation… Sooner or later, there’s no place remotely like home.”

This is all instructive of Maguire’s perspective of knowing skepticism, as is the general structure of his main characters’ arcs in each of the four Wicked books, Out of Oz included. Unmooring his fantasy narrative from the narcissistic demands of heroic convention with a laudable lack of sentimentality, Maguire constructs the journeys of Elphaba, Liir, Sir Brrr, and finally Rain not as a litany of achievements but as a succession of failures that only seem more substantial in rose-coloured hindsight. This view of life is not a positive one, but it reeks of profound, cynical truth: as human beings (or Animals), we can do no better than to keep half a step ahead of our myriad imminent disappointments at any given time. Out of Oz, like most of the Wicked books (I’ll never be anything but underwhelmed by the whinging tone of Son of a Witch), stays a few steps ahead of its disappointments, and it’s that consistent outpacing that makes them a notable and even impressive entry into the mass market (sort-of) fantasy market.

Categories: Culture, Literature, Reviews
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  1. June 16, 2013 at 12:33 pm

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