SON OF A WITCH
By Gregory Maguire
Regan. 334 pp. $26.95
Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel Wicked introduced the excellent conceit that there was another, rather more vexed and, as it happens, more unhygienic side to the story first told by L. Frank Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and later canonized by the 1939 movie. Until Maguire took up the cause, who had bothered to see things from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West? Who had felt any sympathy at all for this victim of an unwholesomely green complexion and a fatal allergy to water? And who, for that matter, had given any thought to sanitary conditions in the Land of Oz?
Wicked taught us a great deal about all of this, not least being that the country possesses a distinctly moldy and feculent aura and its inhabitants are prone to rots and oozings. The Witch was as crabby as we had supposed, but she was a real person, with hopes and fears and loves and losses. She was Elphaba, the first-born child of a promiscuous mother and a preaching father. Furthermore, it was Elphaba's sister, Nessarose, who had been flattened by Uncle Henry and Aunt Em's uprooted farmhouse, and whose magical shoes Dorothy -- a rather missish young person, it turns out -- had appropriated for her own use. Elphaba, we learned also, had played a crucial role in overturning an oppressive, imperialist government and had had an affair with a married man out of which union may have sprung a child. The most likely candidate for that distinction was an unprepossessing, doughy boy called Liir, whose presence Elphaba seemed merely to tolerate and who was the constant butt of other children's horrid pranks.
It is now 10 years later, not only here but also in the Land of Oz, as we discover from Son of a Witch, Maguire's latest novel. The old regime is gone, but peace does not reign. Travelers have been found with their faces scraped off; a young man has been discovered unconscious by the road, barely alive, his body strangely broken. Mystery surrounds his identity, though anyone will guess that it is Liir all grown up and, thank God, looking handsome -- despite the "discharge from his membranes," "blood blisters under the skin" and the "yellowish sweat" rolling off him. A series of flashbacks puts us in the picture as to what has happened to Liir and others since Dorothy -- or "little Miss Thug," as one character calls her -- dispatched Elphaba with a pail of water.
Though Wicked was not simply a reverse image of Baum's book or the famous movie, it depended on their depictions of Oz as a foil for its own maverick reshaping of the narrative. Those for whom potty humor is the acme of wit and foul decay is horror sublime will be happy to know that Son of a Witch is as well-supplied with those articles as the earlier book was. What it has lost, however, is the shaping vigor gained by pushing against a well-known story.
Like the character Liir at its center ("a solitary figure untroubled by ambition, unfettered by talent, uncertain of a damn thing"), the novel suffers from entropy. It wanders around, off-kilter and aimless: "A year passed, another. Nothing was the same, year after year, but little was different, either." Flashbacks show how Liir became a man by joining the Home Guard in the Emerald City ("the Big Itself"), took part in a military atrocity and wandered off again to follow various quests in a desultory fashion, drifting from one to the other, bogging down, gearing up, occasionally knocking something off his list. Attend Conference of the Birds. Check. Slay dragons. Check. Retrieve broomstick and cape. Check. Release Princess Nastoya from life's putrescent thrall. Check. Meanwhile, there is the on-again-off-again search for his possible half-sister, Nor, who apparently smuggled herself out of an underground prison under a heap of dead and decaying Horned Hogs, whose entrails "breed a kind of maggot that likes to burrow into human orifices, especially the airless ones." That mission's on hold.
There are never-ending palaver and bickering among the characters and great gobbets of portentousness at every turn. Sometimes "the dawn seemed full of its own arcane purpose." Sometimes "the world was a spectacle, its own old argument for itself. Endlessly expounded with every new articulation of leaf and limb, laugh and lamb, loaf and loam." Except for getting out of the way of the odd chamber pot being emptied from on high, no one seems to know exactly what to do or where to go in this book. You get the feeling they're simply milling around waiting for the next sequel to begin. *
Katherine A. Powers, who regularly reviews audio books for Book World, writes a literary column for the Boston Globe.