In Out of Oz, Gregory Macguire takes his avid readers on another romp through the world that L. Frank Baum created. A world seen through Macquire’s somewhat stigmatic lenses. Out of Oz, the fourth, and perhaps final, installment of Macquire’s Oz series, ultimately does justice to the alternative storyline he began to weave in 2003’s Wicked.
Many of the characters from previous Oz books make an appearance, some more so than others. The Cowardly Lion, or Sir Brrr, plays a central role, as does a girl from Kansas named Dorothy. Rain, like Dorothy in her first visit to Oz, gathers a collection of Munchkins and dwarfs, animals and Animals, to wander the Yellow Brick Road and beyond. The stalwart contingent wanders always with purpose, never with pleasure. For much of the book, the band of travelers drag along the The Clock of the Time Dragon, a traveling magic show of sorts, and the birthplace of Elphaba Thropp. In Out of Oz, the characters and the props all seem more ragged and aged, as they should be, so many years from our first encounter with their fictional histories. Unlike Charlie Brown or the Rugrats, Macguire’s characters not only age, but they grow.
As central as relatable characters are for a novel, this novel, more so than the other Oz novels, is the story of a book. Although the narrative orbits about its near-human core, Elphaba Thropp’s (aka the Wicked Witch of the West) granddaughter, Rain this is much more a story of a thing than of its human or Animal counterparts. Like Sauron’s Ring of Power in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Out of Oz tells the story of the Grimmerie, the ancient book of magic that we first encounter in Wicked, as it becomes the central quest for both sides of the war. The Grimmerie binds the band of travelers together as they constantly seek to hide or conceal it from those who seeks its power.
Out of Oz, perhaps more like Wicked than the intervening books, offers thinly veiled commentary about the circumstances of intractable wars, terrorism, class warfare, drug legalization, genetic research and other contemporary issues. The original Baum novel ended with the lead characters becoming king or ruler of something, but it had no political bite to those overtures. Until the ‘60s, when professors began to interpret motivations into literature that just weren’t there, no one accused Baum of anything save the politics of fancy. Out of Oz consciously embraces the psychological, the critical and the social aspects of literature.
The story begins in Mockbegger Hall, the current home of retired Throne Minister of Oz, Lady Glinda. Glinda quickly finds her home commandeered and her living spaces frequently impinged upon by General Cherrystone. Mockbegger Hall offers a favored launching point for an assault against Muchkinland.
Unbeknown to General Cherrystone, Glinda employs, or more appropriately, distractedly cares for, a young and unschooled Rain. The merry band of outcasts associated with the Clock of the Time Dragon perform for Cherrystone and his troops at Lady Glinda behest. As an unwanted prophecy unfolds, the band beats a hasty retreat, with Rain in tow, or rather, riding the back of a Lion. Further plot points or details would count as spoilers.
Even those who have never read an Oz book know from popular culture that Oz is someplace ‘other’, at least some place other than Kansas. In the original, Oz was a self-contained ‘other’, surrounded by the great desert. Out of Oz often leaves one feeling, despite Macguire’s attempt to convey distance and temporal displacement, that Oz is a rather small place. Tolkien made Middle Earth a vast alternative to our world, whereas Macguire’s Oz seems more like an alternative island. In its 564 pages, Macguire somehow manages to convey the sense that Oz has a higher metabolism than our world. I’m not sure Macguire completely grasps this aspect of his Ozish otherness, but during my encounter with Macguire ’s Oz ,I managed to feel simultaneously claustrophobic and pushed along.
Thomas Wolfe told us we could not go home again, but Dorothy did. In the movie she clicked ruby slippers and chanted, “There’s no place like home,” while in the original story, less poetically and less visually stunning, Baum had her click silver shoe heals and say “Take me home to Aunt Em!” Wolfe was, as much as any writer, a person of place. The characters in Out of Oz in contrast to Wolfe’s George Webber, seem rather placeless, making homes where they find themselves. As much as they aspire to the protection of the Grimmerie or of Rain, none seeks much from life beyond the moment. And when characters do reach a “home”, they find it more dangerous than any other place they have visited. Macguire’s ephemeral association with place allows the characters, all of them, to define themselves internally, and against each other, rather than against any societal norm, or external expectation.
These thoughts on home coalesce in a meditation by Rain in an exchange with Brrr:
“But that it was his home? So what? Rain had no sentimentality about places. “His home is built on the edge of a chasm during earthquake season, and he feels safe so he stays there? Because it’s, it’s home?”
“No place like it,” said Brrr. “Don’t be withering, it’s not becoming.”
Macguire can be very poetic when he isn’t writing poetry, which tends to be rather poor (I hope that was his intent). I found two distractions in the book though. First, Macguire sometimes asserts his writerliness too much. You can almost see his fingers on the keyboard, the index finger punching out a final period on a clever sentence and then elevating itself into the air as a private punctuation. Phrases like:
“And then he thought, Oh, sweet Ozma. She doesn’t understand it. Deep down, she doesn’t get it. She is younger than her years. Is she simple? She doesn’t know that the world is made up of accidents jackknifed into every moment, waiting to spring out. Of poison saturating one mushroom and not another. Of pox and pestilence accordion-pleated in the drawing room drapes, ready to spread when the drapes are drawn of a chilly evening. Of disaster stitched in the seam of every delight. The fire ant in the sugar bowl. The serpent in the raspberries, as the old stories had it. She doesn’t know enough to worry. She hasn’t been educated enough to fret.”
And phrases often delivered through the Lion Brrr, who seems to growl and roar for Macguire more directly than the other characters, even when his musing appears out of character.
However long he stays in Oz, Macguire conveys Oz through the eyes of an immigrant. Baum asserted a lavish simplicity that easily ensnared readers young and old. Out of Oz, as well as the entire Macguire series, presents a more sophisticated, external and analytical view. It’s almost as if we readers and writer alike are too smart to see Oz as Baum imagined it, and must now see it through a wink of the eye.
And speaking of winks, Out of Oz is also littered with none to subtle references to the 1939 movie, to Judy Garland and her propensity to break into song, and even Michael Jackson and Diana Ross’s musical, The Wiz. As much as this is a book about another place, it’s also a book about The Now. Perhaps our cynical, self-referential, fake-celebrity culture naturally winds its way into all works of art that have themselves become part of a culture bigger than the words on the page. I understand it, but I’m not sure the novel needed or benefited from the references. If Macguire wants to poke fun at his own place in pop culture, perhaps he should follow William Shatner into the realm of Shatner Rules, a vehicle for the self-referential and the tongue-firmly-in-cheek.
Macguire also strews bits of unnecessary crassness along the Yellow Brick Road, perhaps as an attempt at character development, perhaps as an occasional reminder that this is not a children’s book. I found the crassness universally distracting. I am no prude, but in this novel the language, unlike the violence or sex, wasn’t integrated, it just sat there on the page like a turd it sometimes describes.
On some levels, for the varied inhabitants of Oz and their fans, revelations at the end of the novel fulfill hopes and dreams, and tie up plot points like the bow at the back of Dorothy’s gingham skirt. Certain characters, however, leave doors unlocked and landings unsettled, so you may find yourself wanting more. In a publishing environment where trilogies often grow well beyond three, Macguire may find himself set upon by Harper Collins to produce a fifth visitation to Oz, and perhaps beyond despite the novel’s subtitle: The Final Volume in the Wicked Years. (At the close of the novel, we find ourselves clearly on the other side of the “wicked years”, which opens the author and the publisher to a new entry point for future work.)
Regardless of occasional lapses in editorial judgment or the loosening of ends, I found Out of Oz a mostly pleasant re-entry point to Baum’s world (a much better entry point than an earthquake. When you read it, you will get the reference). If you have read the other Macguire Oz novels, you really have little choice but to allow Macguire to whisk you away once again on this magic broom of a novel.