Here’s another late-to-the-party read: Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.” Is it possible it turns 20 this year?
Here’s how it ended up on my reading list: I was watching a bootleg YouTube video of the musical “Wicked,” (I’ve never seen it live. I know, shut up.) which is based on the novel. It was so clever and fun and witty and only a bit dark that I said to myself: “Hey, if the novel is as cute as the musical, this should be fun.”
(Pause goes here.)
(Little bit longer.)
(One more beat.)
Yeah, so it was anything but fun. This novel is a long, tedious exploration of good and evil that had me wondering whether it was going anywhere. SPOILER ALERT: It isn’t.
Maguire supposedly based his novel not just on the original books by L. Frank Baum, but also on the beloved 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” in which Margaret Hamilton played the evil witch who tortured Dorothy and her companions in an attempt to get those sweet ruby slippers. This was smart on Maguire’s part because no one reads those books. In fact, they’re almost unreadable. They meander with no forward momentum and are completely forgettable, even while reading them, so they must be read quickly or you’ll completely lose track of what’s going on.
That’s the case here, too. “Wicked” has the odd dichotomy of having both too much and too little happening. It’s richly imagined and full of interesting characters in service of no plot, with no insight, humor, wit or charm to keep things progressing.
Quick recap, Elphaba (whose name is based on L. Frank Baum) is born to a minister and his drunken slutty wife who can’t remember sleeping with anyone or anything that might explain her daughter’s green color, terrible disposition or aversion to water. After a rotten childhood, Elphaba is sent to a boarding school where she meets Glinda, who will become the Good Witch we know from the movie, and a bunch of other people I didn’t really care about.
Elphaba develops more human characteristics, but maintains her color, and becomes an underground fighter against the oppression of the not-so-wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s a story about political and social upheaval that keeps me at arms length from caring because, well, it’s about elves and munchkins and other fantastical creatures I can’t help but picture singing and dancing.
I listened to this book on CD, which was the only way I got through it. Trapped in a car on the way to and from work kept me focused. And yet I found myself still turning it off to belt out “Defying Gravity,” the power ballad Elphaba sings in “Wicked.”
The novel reminded me of Jasper Fforde’s series of overly cute and too-long novels that included “The Eyre Affair” in which the real world and the book world become one, and his Nursery Crime series, which are hard-boiled detective novels peopled by Humpty Dumpty and Goldilocks and other beloved characters from our childhood books. In theory, both are great ideas. In practice, not so much. Does anyone really need to know about the Wicked Witch’s genitals? Or read about her passionate love affair with another student? In the end, Elphaba is not wicked or evil, merely misunderstood. Surprised? Me neither.
The whole experience made me feel sad for author Gregory Maguire. I wish he had a friend as a child who would have told him, “Once a year is enough to watch that movie; let’s go outside and throw rocks at things.”
I think he might still need a friend: After four novels set in this alternate Oz, Magiure drew inspiration from other children’s stories with books like “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” and “What the Dickens? The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy.” He has written more than 20 works for children and nine for adults.
That’s an impressive amount of writing I won’t be reading.