Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
I picked up Wicked near the beginning of the fall term, so this review is substantially late. I’m not sure where I heard about it; it’s always difficult to remember the preconceptions I had about a book prior to actually reading it. But I heard about it somewhere and was intrigued, though I was never a rabid Oz fan.
In sum, Wicked is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz, but from the point of view of the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West, whom the author, Gregory Maguire names Elphaba. The story begins with Elphaba’s birth, which is shrouded in hints of evil, blood-thirstiness, and the conjunction of faith and witchcraft. But as the story of her life progresses, Elphaba becomes less and less potentially evil and more and more astute critic of the world around her. In the end, she appears to be one of the few truly good people in Oz.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about it after I finished. I was in a dismal mood that day, I remember that, and somehow the end of it seemed unsatisfying and strange to me. Strange and not strange, since it ended exactly they way it had to. (We’ve all seen the movie at least, even if we haven’t read the books.) This is an elaborate and well-thought-out interpretation of that technicolour story, one that invokes and fights against the ethos of the film at every turn. The echo of that scary, green-skinned lady in the movie (“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!”) haunts the story in a very deliberate and teasing way.
I love fanfiction. I love the idea of it, I love the interaction of the audience with the author’s world. I love the boldness of a reader taking a story and turning it into their own, and I love that the actual details of a universe, complicated as they are to create from nothing, do not, in the end, define any story. Everyone can write essentially the same story with the same characters over and over and have it turn out entirely different every time. In fact, I would say there is a closer relationship between many different stories written by one author than there is between one story written by many authors. As it turns out, it’s what’s behind the story, the words themselves, the metaphors and ideas that makes the thing what it is, not the details, not the names of the characters or even the plot.
So I was more than ready to accept Wicked. And I loved what Maguire did with the Wicked Witch of the West. He says that he did not actually intend to make Elphaba so sympathetic, she just ended up that way. Possibly that’s what makes her such a strong character. And I suppose this is more of a character sketch than a story. Which sounds like a criticism, but it’s not really. We know the story already, we’re not reading this book to find out about the story. We’re reading it to have the wicked witch’s motivations revealed to us. There’s a moment in this book where the film takes over, where you can’t help but see Judy Garland pop up in front of you. Most of the book is a long lead up to the events of the film, and as a reader you feel a bit nervous when the familiar plot and imagery takes over. Suddenly you are reminded that this is a story with a strict timeline, and that you know the sad fate of this green-skinned woman you’ve come to love.
I loved the politics of this book, the complexity Maguire added to an essentially simplistic world. (Not having read them, I can’t speak for the books, which may or may not be simplistic, but it seems clear that Wicked is in fact fanfiction for the film, not the books.) The Wicked Witch of the West is a radical socialist in a fascist world. This might have been heavy-handed if he weren’t writing it in L. Frank Baum’s universe, but, like rap music, Maguire is lifting a riff of discourse when he samples Oz, and everything he adds on top of it works.
The question of racism is central to the book, but it covers some uncommon forms of racism. Elphaba, the green-skinned girl; the talking animals whose civil rights are being slowly eroded until they are entirely gone; the reddish peasants in the muddy borderlands who are considered less than human; the Munchkins marked by their shortness and considered unmarriageable by the snooty Glinda. All dominated by a ruthless and mysterious wizard who arrived from some distant place and demands complete devotion. Again, all this focus on how exteriors don’t make the person might be over the top if it weren’t speaking directly to the film. We do think the wicked witch is evil primarily because of her sickly green skin and the tone of her voice. We do think the talking animals and the tiny Munchkins are funny. Speaking directly to the discourse we were all participants of, the deconstruction works.
I read Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister last night. Maguire set his re-telling of Cinderella in Haarlem at the height of the tulip craze in the Netherlands. Generally I avoid historical fiction because I spent too long studying history, and when I catch a detail that’s out of place I can’t ever quite forgive the author for it. It pushes me out of my suspension of disbelief, never to return. But Maguire clearly did his homework. Key elements of Dutch history emerge in this book; the Flemish artists and their domestic subjects, the impact of the Reformation on daily life, the streetscape of an early modern town, medical practices and the spectre of witchcraft, the importance of dowries and the complex relationship of women to their families, and so forth. While the research is clearly there, it’s relegated to the background and doesn’t interfere with the narrative. This book is exactly like the sort of person I would date; this books is like a woman who is so extremely smart and so well-read that she doesn’t feel any need to prove it to you.
Reading a number of books by one author often leads you to an understanding of the author’s own obessions; with Gregory Maguire, we are constantly considering the significance and consequence of beauty and the lack of it, with a variety of conclusions. Elphaba in Wicked is green-skinned and plain and fights against the idea that this marks her as evil; Glinda, the beautiful witch, looks the part of goodness but fails to live up to expectations. Iris, the narrator of Confessions, is undeniably ugly. One of the most striking moments in the book describes the moment when Iris first sees a portrait of herself that she has been posing for for weeks; the artist didn’t want her to see it, but the artist’s apprentice innocently shows her. She sees it as mockery, as an accusation of her ugliness. The artist and the artist’s apprentice both point out that it is not her, it’s only a version of the composition of her face, without that which makes her her behind it. And the exact same thing is true when the artist paints a parallel portrait of the most beautiful girl in the world, Clara (Cinderella). These musings on beauty and ugliness are compelling, and in this book we are left with the moral that they are both elements of the same human quality, that both are neither evidence of God’s mistakes nor of God’s grace, and that both are a gift and a curse. Neither beauty nor ugliness can ruin or elevate, and neither define a person. But there is a sneaking undertone throughout the story that beauty is in fact a destructive, almost diabolical force; when the artist captures the stunningly beautiful Clara on canvas in what is inevitably his best work, he is ruined by the knowledge that he can never do better than this. Clara’s mother fears that Clara, who will always be preceded in life by this perfect portrait, will never be more beautiful and thus will always be a disappointment. Throughout the book, Iris is looking for an evil imp that her mother says is tailing the family; at points in the story, I felt sure that the imp was actually Clara’s beauty. But in the end, the one with the shard of evil inside her is Iris, not Clara.
In both Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Gregory Maguire fits a complicated and believable backstory behind a well-known tale, and then takes great relish in retelling all the familiar details (including flying monkeys and pumpkin carriages) with the echo of his construction behind them. They are stories, but also commentary, cultural criticism, and philosophy.
Up next for me: Mirror, Mirror and Lost.