Review: Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

A comparison of the musical and book versions of Wicked will be discussed in a separate post.

Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire, is a novel that explores the life of the Wicked Witch, named Elphaba in this retelling. By extension the book explores the nature of good and evil, religion, hypocrisy, politics and government, discrimination, and inequality. While it is an intriguing and thoughtful read, Wicked's flaws overshadow its selling points to create a mishmash of good intentions, strangely beautiful execution and peculiar aftereffects.
The plot is contrived, moves slowly, and is bogged down with endless description and a peculiar sense of time. The book follows Elphaba's life in a way that feels less like a cohesive, character-driven novel and more like the long-winded recollections of an old geezer who recalls only certain details in a lewd and boring fashion. Wicked's sense of time is also strange. Years get skipped between parts and dragged out in others, especially in Part IV, In the Vinkus. The beginning of the book is the best-paced part, while the late middle and end drag. Granted, Wicked does not need to move at breakneck speed in order to explore its philosophical musings, but overall the novel moves so slowly that it runs the risk of losing readers.

I figured a picture of the musical cover would irritate "purists." After all, I get irritated when my favorite books get movie covers *coughPercyJacksoncoughcough*

Maguire turned L.F. Baum's innocent, colorful Oz into a corrupt, disillusioned, fragmented, strangely modern version of itself: rife with political struggles and power plays, divided by religion and culture, beset by racism and sexism and classism. Wicked's Oz is so totally beyond redemption as to seem comical, a portrayal that shows the author's lack of faith in his readers--Maguire thought he had to hit his readers over the head with a 180-degree turnaround in order to wake them up from their illusions of an simple, fairy-tale Oz. Perhaps a midway portrayal of the world would have been best, one that blends some of the charm of the original telling with the bleak and cynical lens of Wicked. To entirely flip L.F. Baum's Oz on its head implies that the original telling was not only unsatisfying but a flat-out lie.* A total turnaround of the world also suggests that the reader cannot handle moral in-betweens: either Oz is happy fairy land or gloom and doom. Ironically, Wicked is supposed to explore moral shades of grey.

Said shades of grey are explored via philosophical and social musings on the nature of man. Maguire inserts these ponderings in a haughty, gleeful manner that screams, "Look what I can do! I can corrupt your beautiful fairy land while drawing shocking parallels to the 21st century! I'm so original!" Take this conversation between Elphaba and her lover Fiyero about Elphaba's activist work to bring down the autocratic reign of the Wizard and support Animal rights:

"'Birds feed their young without understanding why ... I do my work with a similar motivation: the movement in the gut towards food, fairness, and safety...'
'Since your work is terrorism, that's the most extreme argument for crime I've ever heard. You're eschewing all personal responsibility. ... If you suppress the idea of personhood then you suppress the notion of individual culpability.'
'What is worse, Fiyero? Suppressing the idea of personhood or suppressing, through torture and incarceration and starvation, real living persons?'" (p199-200)

These conversations are definitely interesting and fit with the brooding, almost nihilistic mood of Wicked; yet at the same time they feel forced, as if Maguire is making his characters convey the author's thoughts on various topics. The philosophy certainly contributes to the author's didactic method of storytelling. At any rate, such explorations make the book worth reading.**

To further shatter the reader's predetermined notions of good and evil, the author makes every character flawed. His greying process, if you will, does successfully subvert the black-and-white attitude held by The Wizard of Oz--but it does so at the cost of likeability. Few characters in the book were likeable, and most were never encountered again after about a hundred pages so it didn't matter whether or not the reader liked them. Elphaba is a cranky, philosophical, cynical activist who treats her child Liir with indifference and confusion; Nessarose grows up to rule Munchkinland under a cold iron fist; Fiyero's character is vapid and a poor match for Elphaba. The characters become exhausting after a while because they have few redeeming qualities for the reader to root for, and are unfortunate victims of Maguire's didactic lens.

Another victim of said lens is the the sex and toilet imagery of Wicked, which adds very little to the story or character development. This failure causes the sex in particular to feel like a sales gimmick. For example, the religious orgies and Philosophy Club outings of the first and second parts of the book add practically nothing to the novel, while Elphaba's relationship with her lover Fiyero could be well-established without its excess of racy scenes (one or two is enough). The fact that Maguire put in so much sex in Wicked shows that the author needed something to spice up, and unnecessarily prolong, plotless parts of the novel. It is obvious that the sex, along with Maguire's obsession with toilet talk, is designed to add to the portrayal of Oz as sordid and corrupt and to that end, the imagery works. But it also makes the novel feel unnecessarily crass, as if Maguire needed to prove that Wicked is an adult book.

Yet for all of its flaws, Wicked is oddly compelling. The characters reflect the notion of the modern human: a battered person trying to follow his heart when the world itself seems to lack one, and in the process irritating quite a few people and second-guessing himself. The ruminations and literary imagery add beauty to Maguire's otherwise bleak world. If it wasn't for the rambling pace and the formulaic nature of the novel, Wicked would be a true classic.

* Confusingly, Maguire's flip could also be flipped in the other direction, nullifying both arguments simultaneously. It is possible that this analysis of Maguire as a haughty shaker-upper of society is too harsh. His portrayal of Oz does offer an undoubtedly interesting spin on the questions he explores.

** Then again I'm a sucker for both philosophy and fantasy, so I had to finish Wicked no matter how boring it became.


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