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Unrest for the Wicked - The Book of the Celestial Cow

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November 12th, 2008


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12:00 am - Unrest for the Wicked
Since the musical is coming to San Francisco, I thought it was a good time to finally read Wicked, by Gregory Maguire. As everyone knows, it's the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, and the book assumes familiarity with the basic story of The [Wonderful] Wizard of Oz, if not all the details. I've never read the book, but I want to now to see how much was taken from it.

The majority of the book, as far as I can tell, is entirely original, which makes it seem less like professional fanfic and more like a story based on a model. Especially because Maguire clearly imposes a lot of his own ideas onto the preexisting construct, whether or not it's a natural fit. He reimagines Oz as a country with real-world political issues. Elphaba—which I only learned at the end of the book has its stress on the first syllable, not the second—becomes a champion of Animal rights (in Maguire's Oz, Animals are distinct from animals, which aren't self-aware and don't talk). The "Wonderful" Wizard of Oz is essentially a despot. There is talk of secession. There's rebellion and assassination and spying and all that good stuff.

It's much headier than you'd expect. Besides the political themes, the other major component is a continuing discussion of the nature of good and evil, which is appropriate when telling the story from the perspective of the villain of the tale. How and why does Elphaba turn into the cackling monster with an army of flying monkeys? Is she truly wicked or just misunderstood? A lot of the dialogue on this subject seems forced, as if Maguire is trying to stick sections from an essay of his into the mouths of his characters, but the discussion is still rather fascinating.

Maguire also injects an air of ambiguous predestination into the story, with lots of mystical occurrences and recurrences. The mysterious Clock of the Time Dragon plays an important role. And there are implied connections between various characters and events that even freak out Elphaba herself. What's kind of awesome is that Maguire never comes out and confirms anything; I think not giving a definite answer about what is or isn't going on really works for this story. It fits the style and tone very well.

There is, of course, some non-ambiguous, extratextual predestination. We know Elphaba and Glinda become enemies, even though they start out as college roommates. We know Elphaba's sister, Nessarose, gets a house dropped on her. We know she's wearing some pretty fine slippers that Dorothy ends up with—and let me tell you, I have never read a book so concerned with fucking shoes before. We know the Wizard's not all he's cracked up to be. And we know Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the West. This, of course, is the biggest spoiler you come in with, and it hangs over the entire book. Because you really start to care about Elphaba! She's kind of cool! She's headstrong and snarky and anti-establishment and, okay, she's also kind of annoying sometimes. But she's a very well developed character, like many others in the book. Maguire fashions people out of archetypes.

I found the structure of the book interesting and maddening. The book is divided into five sections, but between each section, Maguire skips many years. We don't actually get to see Elphaba's childhood; we skip from baby Elphaba to college-bound Elphaba. We hear a little about her childhood from other characters, but I suppose it's not all that important. More important is the huge change in political climate, which, again, we don't get to see happen. Every new section, we have to glean what major events have happened in the interim. I guess the narrative doesn't suffer since the story still gets told, but I can't help but feel I missed out on stuff.

I really liked the first half of the book, but the second half is much slower and more politically oriented. And things get a little...kookier. That is, most of the book is a solid fantasy novel, but he introduces some new elements in the latter half that seem a little incongruous. I did say I liked the mystical hoo-hah, but it still feels somewhat off at times.

All in all, I think Wicked is a book I admired more than I enjoyed. Maguire spins an impressively complex yarn, working off a framework but putting a very original spin on it. And the prose displays a love of the story, the characters, and the world he's created. The strong political focus is just not my thing, however, as well done as it is. Luckily, Maguire is a great storyteller, and he knows how to pull you in anyway. He takes you through a whirlwind journey from the birth to the death of the Wicked Witch of the West. And I've got to give him props for knowing the perfect way to end the book.
Current Mood: nostalgicwistful
Current Music: Drip - Turning Grey
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 12th, 2008 04:05 pm (UTC)
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I've heard "Defying Gravity" exactly once because someone made a Firefly vid, but that's it. I don't want to listen to the soundtrack, though; I'll wait till I see the show to hear the songs.
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From:wee_warrior
Date:November 12th, 2008 08:30 am (UTC)
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I loved the first three parts or so, but I think it really comes undone in the end, when she's starting to live in the tower. I had less problems with the philosophical (political? Ideological?) rhetoric, but I fear I know people who actually talk like that. It is an odd ingredient for a fantasy novel, to be sure.

What really surprised me was the rather healthy dose of sex, because I was going into it honestly believing it would be kid's lit.

Edited at 2008-11-12 09:10 am (UTC)
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 12th, 2008 04:07 pm (UTC)
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I loved the first three parts or so, but I think it really comes undone in the end, when she's starting to live in the tower.
That's exactly where it started to lose me too. It just becomes so static.

What really surprised me was the rather healthy dose of sex, because I was going into it honestly believing it would be kid's lit.
Heh. It was a little surprising, yeah. I didn't expect it to be kidlit, but I wasn't totally expecting it to be that adult.
From:cerulgalactus
Date:November 12th, 2008 09:01 am (UTC)
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"...admired rather than enjoyed."

Oh my god, yes. That is EXACTLY the phrase that both Jess and I were hunting for after we read the book. Like you said, I give Maguire props for fleshing out an existing universe in ways that worked in his head, but for me (and I suspect, you too) the writing style tended to pull a me out of the world on a regular basis.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 12th, 2008 04:10 pm (UTC)
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Ha ha, and here I was afraid fans of the book were going to jump all over me for not looooooooving it. Who knew so many people felt exactly like I did? It wasn't the writing style that pulled me out; like I said, I liked the writing. But the general tone of the book can be a little overbearing at times.
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From:jenepel
Date:November 12th, 2008 11:29 am (UTC)
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I have to piggyback here and agree about the "admired rather than enjoyed" line. I read this a few years ago because one of my mom's friends (who used to be my HS English teacher!) was waxing lyrical about it. I just couldn't get into it in the same way. There were large sections I really liked, but then he would get mired in a political diatribe or something and I would get turned off again. And yet, I could see her point about how it was a good book. So I don't know.

What was funny was how disappointed I was the first time I saw the show. I felt totally cheated about how watered down it was! I've since come to grips wtih that, and seen it a few more times with various visitors. It really is a gread musical, I think you just have to divorce it from the book.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 12th, 2008 04:12 pm (UTC)
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I've heard that the musical is different (and there are pictures from the stage show in my book, so I can already see some of the differences), so I'm going to try to divorce them. And I won't be seeing it for a couple months at least, so the book won't be as fresh in my mind. But I might like it more if it's less political and more focused on Elphaba's emotional journey, as I'd expect a musical to be.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 12th, 2008 04:14 pm (UTC)
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Ha ha ha. I did not hate the book, and I think it ties plots together pretty damn well, myself. And as far as the actual source material, it's clear Maguire's using the book, not the movie, given the slippers.

I'm looking forward to the musical!
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From:etherealclarity
Date:November 12th, 2008 01:38 pm (UTC)
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I'm not sure I admired OR enjoyed Wicked (the book). I got through the whole thing, which says it wasn't terrible, but I think I got through it more in the hopes that it would get better at some point and pay off, which for me it never really did.

I am definitely interested to see the musical when/if it comes around MD though.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 12th, 2008 04:17 pm (UTC)
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I'm not normally like this, but I sort of liked that there was no big payoff. Because Maguire had a framework for the story, we knew where Elphaba's life was heading. And the subtitle of the book is The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. It's a simple biography, and people's lives don't always come to a narratively convenient climax. They just live, sometimes. Like I said, there was something about the style and tone that made it work for me.
From:vanessagalore
Date:November 12th, 2008 03:34 pm (UTC)
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I really liked the beginning of "Wicked" (the novel). The premise just floored me. However, it quickly became tiresome and contrived. I was out of the country on a lengthy business trip and had very few books with me, so I persevered. If I had been home, I would not have been able to finish it. That being said, the premise really is quite spectacular. I agree with the above commenter who said they were hoping for a payoff that never came.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 12th, 2008 04:20 pm (UTC)
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I think I may have felt that it was tiresome and contrived sometimes, though that feels harsh. As for the bit about the payoff, read above!
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From:beeker121
Date:November 12th, 2008 03:36 pm (UTC)
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Having read the book, please do your best to forget it completely before seeing the musical. Admittedly I saw the pre-Broadway SF run so it may have changed, but they took the bare bones of the story from the book and built something different. I enjoyed the book (I read it nearly a decade ago, so I don't really remember specifics anymore) and was sad that the musical was telling such a different story. Once I got past that, I was better able to enjoy the show for what it was.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 12th, 2008 04:19 pm (UTC)
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Wow, is it that different? I will do my best not to expect the story from the book!
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From:daynr
Date:November 12th, 2008 04:04 pm (UTC)
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The book and musicale are quite different, so don't focus/think about the book. I read the book when I was coming out of college with my lovely politics minor and love it, of course. It's blurry since it's been over 10 years (ouch) and I have no desire to reread it though I should - way to painful of a book bc I like and feel badly for Elphaba.

The book/story is so built now that I'm not sure anyone could love it, but 10 years ago there were a bunch of us sharing it and we all enjoyed it.

Also, don't read anything else by him. They're so not as good, even though I love fairy tales/fables. I haven't read son of a witch, so maybe that one is good.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 12th, 2008 04:23 pm (UTC)
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I've heard from a few people that it's not really not good, actually. I simultaneously do and do not have a strong desire to read his other books. I, too, love fairy tales/fables, and he's obviously doing interesting things with them, but I'm not sure I want to see them all given this treatment, exactly. As I said, it often feels like he's imposing his own ideas on a story that's not designed to hold them.
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From:glasseseater
Date:November 12th, 2008 04:32 pm (UTC)
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I really loved Wicked when I first read it, but I was like, twelve.
I think on rereading I pretty much would have agreed with everyone else, the first three fifths or so of the book are entertaining, the part where she gets to the tower are strange and kind of irrelevant.
In every successive book he's gotten further and further away from what made Wicked interesting at all (interesting characters, interesting politics) and more into the whole good and evil mystical woo crap. I think Ugly stepsister had four really good paragraphs in the whole book.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 12th, 2008 04:40 pm (UTC)
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I do sort of like the whole good and evil mystical woo crap, but that's two votes for not reading any more of his books, hee. I guess I can live with that. I do have Fables already.
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From:duchessdogberry
Date:November 12th, 2008 04:54 pm (UTC)
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I was the one at the Dragonfly that wanted to hear your thoughts on the book.


That said, I'm surprised to see you and so many people actually admire the writing. I hated this book so much it made me feel ill as I forced myself to try to continue to read it. The stuff while they're at school was interesting, but it just went off the deep end after they see the wizard. And, yeah, the stuff in the tower at the end is just full of "What the fucking fuck?!" and so on. Also, I got the distinct impression that Maguire has a fascination with urination. It seemed to come up a bit more often than I'm used to.

But I adore the musical. Normally, I don't go for the fluffier version of a story if given the choice, but I definitely prefer the cut-down and focused world of the musical to the muddled over-written crap of the novel. I finally felt for Elphaba rather than wanting to strangle her, although the characterizations of Fiyero and Glinda do suffer some major simplifications in order to make Elphaba easier to relate to and to put more comedy into the story. And there's just an air of political themes to the musical to make you think, rather than a rain of anvils.

Not to mention, they do some really cool effects in the musical that I just adore.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 12th, 2008 05:02 pm (UTC)
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It sounds like I'll probably like the musical more than the book! I'm looking forward to it.

But I'm amused by your feelings on the book. I think if I wanted to, I could have hated it, but that's not how I'm wired, as you know.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 12th, 2008 05:23 pm (UTC)
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Now, I will say that I really liked his book Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister.
But according to glasseseater, it only has four good paragraphs! Maybe they were REALLY good paragraphs.

The only other book of his I've read is Lost and I loathe that book with the fire of a thousand suns. I'd rather gouge out my eyes than read that again.
Eep. Funny, I was under the impression most people liked Gregory Maguire's books.
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From:gymble
Date:November 12th, 2008 05:46 pm (UTC)
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I think Wicked is a book I admired more than I enjoyed.
Yes, this exactly (along with everyone else, I think). The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite childhood books, and while I could sort of appreciate what Maguire was trying to do, I didn't like the extremes with which he messed around with it. All the political commentary kind of fell flat for me, and the Dorothy section felt positively shoehorned in.

I'll agree with corbeau though - I really enjoyed Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. I think that Maguire does better when he has the looser framework of a fairytale to work with. I haven't read anything else by him though, so maybe that book was a fluke.

Also, did I see correctly that you haven't read the book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz? ARGH. What is wrong with American youth? Movies are not books - even when the movie is wonderful in its own right. Which reminds me, I need to go harangue my husband about reading that book again.

I've been trying to see the musical for three years now, dammit, and keep not being able to get tickets. Drat.

Edited at 2008-11-12 05:47 pm (UTC)
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 12th, 2008 06:07 pm (UTC)
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I didn't even see the movie until college. It was totally cracked-out. I do want to read the book now.

the Dorothy section felt positively shoehorned in.
Heh, yeah. I think that only works because you're expecting it as part of the story. Otherwise, it's a terrible narrative choice.

I've been trying to see the musical for three years now, dammit, and keep not being able to get tickets. Drat.
Come up here and see it with me!
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From:redflora
Date:November 12th, 2008 06:22 pm (UTC)
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The first time I tried to read this book, I was so put off by the writing style that I gave up pretty quickly. When I tried again a few years later I was able to finish by virtue of the fact that I became impressed by the uniqueness of Maguire's style - the originality of the premise and his perspective, and even the clinicality of the storytelling - but I certainly never got personally invested in the story. The musical's a kind of halfway point between the original "Wizard of Oz" (well, original book and technicolor world of the classic movie) and Maguire's novel - it works off of Maguire's premise but definitely skews much lighter and brighter. Eh, you've heard all this - I'd guess you'll like the musical, especially seeing as you already know it's not really all that much like Maguire's book. I look forward to seeing your review!

Oh, and I heard recently that "Elphaba" is an amalgamation of the initials of the original author, L. Frank Baum. Cool, huh?
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 12th, 2008 06:33 pm (UTC)
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Yep, I discovered that at the end with the "Book Club Questions" that told me that I'd been pronouncing her name wrong the whole time.

There is a certain clinicality to the storytelling, now that you mention it, but I think it's dressed up enough that it's not as dry as it would be otherwise.
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From:punzerel
Date:November 12th, 2008 06:36 pm (UTC)
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You should read the original Oz books. They are deeelightful.

I kind of liked Wicked, but not in a way that I would now pick it up again and read it for fun. It's a bit of an effort. I thought it was much much easier to read than the other ones I tried (definitely Mirror, Mirror, possibly Confessions of an Ugly Step-Sister). His children's book What the Dickens (about a tooth fairy) is surprisinglu adorable, though.
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From:spectralbovine
Date:November 12th, 2008 06:40 pm (UTC)
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I think I'll try to read the original Oz book before I see the musical. I mean, I really ought to, especially given how much it's featured on The Sarah Connor Chronicles!

I kind of liked Wicked, but not in a way that I would now pick it up again and read it for fun. It's a bit of an effort.
Yeah, it is.

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