Seeking a Good Read?

09 Mar 2007


Seeking a superlatively enthralling read these days? I've been juggling many, many books lately. But, the one I look forward to most is Wicked by Gregory Maguire. I checked an audio-book version out of the library last week and have been listening to it while jogging. It's stunningly brilliant, IMHO (which in my experience means most others probably hate it).

I'd never seen the musical, and didn't pay much attention to the book back when everyone else was reading it. A question that comes to mind, of course, is whether (or, I suppose, to what extent) any of the book's allure is attributable to L. Frank Baum, original creator of the characters and (as far as I know) the geography. While that may indeed be fodder for discussion, I think it's missing the point -- which is that the book clearly stands on its own as a remarkably creative work of art. The writing is a thing of beauty, well informed by the traditions of literary masters (a true surprise for me, as I was more or less expecting some kind of glorified fanfic like you might find in some geekified Usenet enclave or something).

Sure, it's revisionist; that's not exactly an issue for me. Sure, it's derivative; but, what isn't these days? One could even say it's an artistic statement about the derivative nature of all art. (I wouldn't say that, but "one" could, whoever "one" is.) But, again, even that would be missing the point -- which is, again, that this book is a masterpiece. I think a lot of critics these days forget that at least one aspect of great writing is the entertainment factor, the kind of storytelling that keeps a reader eagerly turning pages, staying up a little later than he or she planned in order to squeeze in another chapter (or, in my case, to jog an extra lap around the shopping center just to hear a little more).

This book also has a fair amount in common with Pynchon's Against the Day, another book in my stack. It's been interesting to read them simultaneously, comparing certain themes. Had I but world enough and time, I'd possibly consider looking into this in much more depth.

In my mind, I've likened Maguire to a singer who reinterprets a famous song. In a way, it's an homage to the original composer; in another, it's like taking a kind of ownership of the other's work, even improving upon it in various inspired ways. It's originality via derivation. Think about that one for a moment ... Originality via derivation is a huge gamble for an artist. With talent, luck, and a hell of a lot of work, you can possibly pull it off; or, more often than not, I'd guess, you just might crash and burn.

Cobain, for example, always stood out to me as a master of this -- e.g., in his treatment of, say, the Meat Puppets material (which, let's face it, was barely listenable as released). But KC saw something in it and showed us, which was part of his demented gift. Where he produced a thing of value with these covers, how many others bands can you think of who've done a cover tune, added nothing to it, and your reaction was "so what"? About a million, I'd guess.

In Maguire's case, he invented Elphaba (the name being a tribute to Oz creator LFB) and presented a magical back story to explain a thing or two. The prose captivates with a rare cleverness; one finds oneself laughing out loud with a frequency that may call unwanted attention from passers by. You may be thought insane as a result, but it's worth it.

Just my two cents, of course.

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On March 15, 2007, Kevin Wolf wrote:

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