Oz Revisited

Peter Wood

Have you heard the one about the priapic dwarf, Mr. Boss, and his concupiscent Munchkin wife, Little Daffy? They are one of the running jokes in Gregory Maguire’s Out of Oz, the fourth and final volume of his dark retelling of Frank Baum’s beloved children’s classics. Midway through this new installment, Dorothy, who at sixteen has plummeted back to Oz in an elevator shaft, has been put on show trial in the Munchkin capital, accused of assassinating the Wicked Witches, East and West, whose reputations have somehow enjoyed a posthumous revival as figures of Munchkin nationalism. As the populace hungers for the spectacle of Dorothy in the dock, Mr. Boss and Little Daffy, both getting on in years, are getting it on in the inn. Little Daffy suggests to her husband, “Let’s go back to our room and play Tickle My Fancy.”

“The loud version,” agreed Mr. Boss, cheerily enough.  “Give Dame Hostile a little entertainment through the keyhole.

“I’ll catch you up later,” said the Lion.

This clearly isn’t the kid lit version.

There is no particular shortage of higher education topics to address these days: scandals in college sports, overpaid college presidents, and—of particular interest to me—the joint advisories from Education and Justice on the pursuit of “diversity.”  But since higher education so often resembles the original Oz in its baffling strangeness, I thought we might spend a few moments looking at Oz 2.0, the version that actually channels the contemporary academic unrelenting focus on race, gender, class, colonialism, and sustainability.

Maguire’s Oz is a place of ethnic conflict, power-hungry elites, and Nuremberg-style race laws (against the talking Animals), immiseration of the poor, environmental depredation, and manifold social injustice.  An ancient life-affirming goddess has been displaced by state-sponsored hierarchical worship of the “unnamed God.” The old benign matriarchal government has been captured by males bent on centralized domination. In short, Maguire has displaced the fantasy world of original Oz stories with the fantasy version of the world that prevails in a fair number of feminist and Marxist college classrooms.

Maguire’s first Oz book, Wicked, transformed into a Broadway musical, has proved a long-running success. The stage version is true to the conceit of turning the Wicked Witch of the West into a sympathetic adult woman who has contemporary relationship problems, an artistic temperament, and feminist sensibilities. While the Broadway production captures Maguire’s basic move of re-imagining Baum’s characters as self-conscious and articulate figures who struggle with existential difficulties, the play wisely avoids the darker recesses of Maguire’s vision.

As an author, Maguire has made a specialty of re-appropriating and re-purposing old children’s tales, including Cinderella (Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister) and Snow White (Mirror Mirror). These are not so much twice-told tales, as Hawthorne called his re-imaginings of Greek myths, as they are audacious inversions of the originals. The presiding muse is similar to John Updike’s when he wrote Gertrude, as a prequel toHamlet, and made Claudius’s murder of Hamlet’s father seem a perfectly warranted response to a cold-blooded old tyrant.

Re-imagining literary characters is, of course, nothing new. Euripides was doing it about 2,500 years ago, and in something of the same manner: putting psychological modern dress on old archetypes. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is no less a re-imagining as Updike’s. But those precedents go only so far. Maguire’s post-modern retellings are playful at one level but rather deadening at another.  They depend on the audience’s childhood familiarity with and affection for the originals, and proceed by dipping these memories into a corrosive mixture of adult knowingness and cynicism. The basic theme is exploded innocence. These are books that offer one long nihilistic wink at the reader, a confidential “this is how the world really works.”

That it is a world inhabited by talking Animals and flying dragons and a place where magical spells can turn the course of battles just makes the dismal struggle against the perpetual calamity of life a little more vibrant. Maguire’s picturing of Oz as a place of racial and class conflict and the product of a long-term displacement of female imaginative generosity by brutal and brutalizing males comes across not as salesmanship for these conceits but as Maguire’s assumption that, once we dispense with the fairy tales, that’s really what the world amounts to. If you want to offer today’s American public a hard-boiled description of reality, this is it: exploitation and conflict are the bottom layer of reality. Honest servants are tossed out of windows. Military authorities make people who know too much “disappear.” Children are left to languish in prison. Torture is employed by the state to extract useful “intelligence.”

To the extent that Oz is a stand-in for America, Maguire offers so ugly a vision of it that most readers would turn away in disgust–were it not for the playful charm of the whole thing.  We can have our innocence and eat it too in Maguire’s Oz. As to where this dire view of America comes from, that part seems easy enough. This is pretty much the view of the country propagated by the academy for a generation or two.

Maguire’s novels—all of them, more or less— succeed because of the imaginative density of Maguire’s writing, his occasional brilliance of phrase and metaphor, and his genuine gift for storytelling. This being Oz, the environment usually cooperates evocatively with the mood and the mood is generally one of frustrated longing. Here he is describing a farewell:

The companions made their good-byes in a grove of oakhair trees.  Long strands of new growth, acorns forming at the tips, dropped a kind of silent rain among them.  An outdoor room laced with harp strings.  As the companions stood there, reluctant to take their leave of one another, a breeze scurried along the floor of the forest.  It strummed the strings of the oakhair fronds, a soft and jangled music, an orchestral evocation of the mood that had settled upon them.

Despite the quality of the writing, at the end of a Maguire novel I find myself disenchanted, and not necessarily in the sense of having been made wiser to the sorry realities of life and freer from illusions. The disenchantment is also with the imaginative poverty of the enterprise.

Fantasy worlds, of course, are always extrapolations of the familiar. Sometimes these extrapolations can carry extraordinary weight. Think of Spenser’s The Faerie Queeneor Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, in which the imagined world is so intensely realized that it seems, at least for a while, to stand on its own. Maguire presumably isn’t aiming for that and shouldn’t be faulted for writing easy satire instead. What he writes is enjoyable enough in its own terms, “an orchestral evocation of the mood.”

What mood? A grimly cynical diminishing of American ideals. Maguire was colonizing Baum’s Oz with spiritually broken people, social resentments, and greedy capitalists before the Occupiers set up their first tent in Zuccotti Park, but like a character named Candle in Out of Oz, who has the gift of being able to “see the present,” Maguire captured the breezy cynicism, the taken-for-granted class analysis, the pseudo sophisticated rabble-rousing of the enterprise before it actually materialized.

He also captured the evanescence of the whole thing. The cynicism definitely lingers but it leads nowhere in particular or perhaps to the retelling of old dreams and fantasies. Maguire may have better books in him; but if he stops here, he will have written a pretty convincing epitaph on American higher education, which transports way too many students by whirlwind or earthquake into an intellectual Oz.

This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on December 12, 2011.

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