Wednesday, September 29, 2010

An Urgent Message

What is the proper response to an envelope marked "Urgent"?  When I ask my classes this, they always answer correctly and immediately: "Throw it away."  What effect then, I ask them, does a reader get from a sentence that begins "Obviously," or "Surely," or "The important thing to note is"?  Obviously, the important thing to note is that these sentences end up sounding distinctly unimportant.  Any attempts by a student writer or a mass-marketeer to convince the audience of the importance of her message always backfire.

What should I think, then, of a recent novel whose group study questions (already a bad sign) include the pronouncement that the book is en epic along the lines of Shakespeare or ancient Greek drama?  You think such blatant self-aggrandizement is too far-fetched to be true?  That I made up this scenario?  Alas, this is exactly what you may read at the back of Gregory Maguire's Wicked, and I'm sorry to say, having finished the book (maybe there's a reason they put the study questions in the back), that the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West are about as Shakespearean as the contents of the junk envelope are urgent.

I suppose the right topics are present; they just aren't dealt with in a sophisticated way.  People simply have sex with whomever they "love."  Although religions play a large role in the plot, none of the religions of Oz seems to have any explanation for talking Animals (let alone scarecrows).  Killing seems to be wrong until someone gets mad.  The deepest "discussion" of evil takes the form of a two-page series of disconnected pronouncements by characters at a party, none of which play out their opinions for the reader -- or indeed take any part in the novel outside these two pages.

The cover of the book promises a probing examination of our assumptions about the nature of evil.  And then Elphaba is born green.  The publishers must think that no one in the United States has ever thought about whether skin color makes a person evil.  I suspected the worst at this point in the book, and my fears were confirmed when I made it to Elphaba's school days.  There we meet Doctor Dillamond, a talking Goat who is trying to prove that underneath it all, people and Animals (with a capital A -- it makes a difference in the book) are just the same.  Once he proves this, he plans to move on and do the same for men and women.  Maguire's sentimental ideas are so vague, he can only express them in these ridiculous terms.  Of course people and Animals are not just the same: one creature is a human and the other is a Goat.  If they were just the same, there would be nothing to investigate.  Where is this sameness that Maguire wants Doctor Dillamond to find with his newly invented microscope?  Every cell of any man has a Y chromosome, and every cell of any woman has two X's.  So far, we're still different.  Perhaps the Doctor has to look at the level of the atom and find that there's no such thing as human carbon and Goat carbon -- just carbon.  Congratulations!  You've not only discovered there's no difference between humans and Animals; you've just proven there's no difference between a human and a piece of coal.

If only Maguire had learned his Aristotle.  Any thing is defined by locating its genus and then its species.  The genus puts the thing in a category with other things that are just like it at this level, while the species indicates the differences that distinguish this thing from all the other members of the genus.  The Bible, because it talks common sense, recognizes that men and women are different at one level (contrary to popular belief, people in Bible times knew how babies were made; otherwise the virgin birth is no miracle) and the same at another level (for instance, "there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus").

Surely you will note the urgent message: Wicked and David Copperfield are alike in that they are novels.  They are different in that one is good.

1 comment:

  1. A delightfully scathing review! The moral to this story is: don't make ex libris magnis angry. I think he deserves literary extra credit!