Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Anatomy of a classic

“Save a place on the shelf between Alice and The Hobbit – that spot is well deserved.”

--Kirkus Reviews


Shortly before we left on Christmas vacation, I read the novel Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. This tome was a best-seller in 1995 (I believe) and spawned a musical with a really annoying soundtrack and very little resemblance to its source. The above snippet of the Kirkus review appeared on the back cover of the copy I picked up at the library. Clearly somebody liked this book and felt it was an instant classic (an oxymoronic term if ever there was one).

Personally, I think the Kirkus reviewer was smoking crack. Alice in Wonderland, The Hobbit, and Wicked share a superficial similarity in that each is set in a fantasy world. What of it? The vulgar, sleazy Oz of Gregory Maguire's imagination is a dark, ugly place. Alice and The Hobbit (and The Wizard of Oz, for that matter) are rightly regarded as masterpieces of children's literature. Wicked is entirely unsuitable for children -- if not because of its grim tone, then certainly because of some rather explicit and kinky sexual content.

I don't think Wicked was intended for children, misguided Kirkus reviewers notwithstanding, so let's examine it as a work for adults. It wants to grapple with the nature of evil -- what makes a person wicked? What is evil, really? Grand beginnings, but the book never moves past questions to accepting or rejecting any conclusions. Toward the end an interesting subtext on forgiveness starts to develop, but again it never seems to make it off the ground. A discussion of the existence of souls is certainly of universal interest, but Wicked focuses narrowly on the origins of the souls of talking animals, a topic of limited usefulness to Joe Reader looking for existential themes in his pop literature. And it seems to me a fatal flaw when the most interesting character in the book (Dorothy) doesn't enter the plot until the end.

This all begs the question: what is it that makes a book "classic"? (For the record, I don't think that a book becomes a classic simply because a hit Broadway musical can be concocted from its basic premise.) The traditional qualifications for what makes art Art in Western thought are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. I won't grant Wicked Beauty. I don't think it even possesses an Anti-Beauty that points you toward the real thing. It's tawdry and nasty throughout. Truth is less of a stretch, though the attempts to discover the truth of the nature of evil or of the existence of souls peter out. Maguire uses a crude realism that's effective (the image of an infant examining her own urine is not unrealistic, and the same is true of the pressing urge of a pregnant woman to rush to the outhouse) but unhelpful in delving deeper toward the underlying truths of human existence. Goodness? The book is skillfully written, to be sure. The imagery is intriguing, if not compelling, and there's a genuine creative imagination at work. It's well-done. I don't think it's good. It's not even great. It's just a best-seller.

Really, this is more examination that the book deserves, but I think reviewers ought to be a bit more cautious about slinging around the appellation "classic".


Anonymous said...

"Save a place on the shelf between Alice and The Hobbit ... if you only own three books, and want to sort them alphabetically by author surname."

CMinor said...

Aside to Steve: Snort!

Hon. Daughter #1 has been reading this and you're right--definitely not kid fare. I can't imagine what the reviewer was thinking. LOTR isn't technically a "kids'" book (although The Hobbit is,) but you can read it to a kid without worrying that you might hit on unsuitable material--not the case with Wicked.

Hon. D. objects that, while McGuire raised some interesting issues along the way, he failed to develop them. She'd read, and think, "well, okay, that's an interesting point; why don't you explore that a little further and tell us what you think about it," and he never would. As I got the impression the book was a little issues-driven anyway, this is not good.

I don't think she was too impressed with the sequel, Son of a Witch, either.