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BOOK REVIEW : ‘Was’ Captures Oz With Genuine Power : “WAS” <i> by Geoff Ryman</i> ; Alfred A. Knopf; $22, 353 pages

TIMES BOOK CRITIC

“Was” is about Oz; in a way, it is Oz. It is a rich set of variations on the double transaction in Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”; the liberation of reality by fantasy and the anchoring of fantasy by reality.

Baum dissolved the gray impoverishment of hard-scrabble Kansas into a place of color and magical abundance, while all the magic was filtered through the eyes of a down-to-earth Kansas child.

It was a powerfully absorbing transaction and, ever since, it has had something of the lifting, in-pulling effect of its own cyclone. The effect was immeasurably increased, and unbalanced somewhat, by the fabulous film that was made in 1939 and has been with us ever since.

Geoff Ryman’s book is cyclonic, as well. It is a swirling collage of reality and fantasy. It joins and displaces a whole series of elements that touch on the Oz fiction and the Oz fact. Among them are the real history of Kansas settlement, a lightly imagined glimpse of the real Frank Baum as a child and an entirely fictional scene about Frank Baum, who briefly, gaily, was the substitute teacher of a drastically disturbed Kansas child named Dorothy Gael.

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It is, at length, a bleakly realistic fiction about Dorothy’s harsh life with her farmer aunt and uncle, Em and Henry, her sexual abuse, her hallucinations--a hint of night-town Oz--and her descent into madness. It tells of the making of “The Wizard of Oz” from the exuberant viewpoint of a makeup artist and of the real Gothic childhood of Judy Garland.

Woven through these things--part realistic fiction, part hallucination, part fantasy--is the story of Jonathan, a gay actor. He was a wild, near-autistic a child when, at 5, he saw a televised screening of “Wizard”; for a time thereafter, he lived an imaginary life with its characters.

He grew into a fragile, talented health. Stricken with AIDS and dying, he goes to research the world of Dorothy Gael in the little town of Manhattan, Kan. It is a trip in terms of reality that leads back to fantasy; what comes at the end is an otherworldly echo from the Land of Oz in Kansas.

With his mix of documentary reality, fictional realism and infusions of fantasy--a peripheral character in Dorothy’s childhood is essentially a Munchkin--Ryman takes all manner of risks. Occasionally there is the feeling of claustrophobia that comes when fantasy lets readers know that it is good for them. When exploring the meaning of Oz and dealing with the film and Judy Garland as cult-film and cult-figure, there are touches of campy sentimentality and melodramatics. A section on Garland’s aggrieved and litigious mother verges on soapy, film-magazine tones; while this is legitimate, it is also a burden.

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Jonathan’s dying search for Oz has a moment or two of kitsch in it, but his portrait on the whole is delicate and moving. There is a genuine power and wildness in the book that overcomes its occasional notes of indulgence. They are rooted in the agonized figure of Dorothy Gael and the Kansas world that Ryman creates around her.

The torment of this child, who arrives as an orphan by train, is partly the work of her uncle and aunt. Uncle Henry is not painted as a villain, though, but as a weak man deranged by a bleak life, unable to separate in himself the impulses of love and of sexual abuse. Em, who seems dour and forbidding, is a firebrand with a passionate belief in beauty and ideas and an awkward but genuine talent as a poet. She is too much for the child; her portrait may be the most remarkable in the book.

Dorothy’s is a close second, as an unhappy child who grows up hulking and fat and coarsens into a school bully and successively into a vagrant, a prostitute and finally a mental patient. Throughout, never explicitly, Ryman is able to suggest, in her hallucinations, fugitive reflections and night wanderings, a spirit rooted in magic and hope.

In counterpoint to the darkness of this life, there is an odd lightness when we see her in her last days as a mental patient. The witness is Bill, a kind and uncomplicated Kansas student who works as a nurse’s aide and who is transformed by the encounter.

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Old Dorothy is unquestionably deranged, but there is a wit, a sharpness and an unexpectedness that seems to come from another world, almost as if she’d been to Oz and back. Bill will go on to become a psychiatrist; he will treat Jonathan, tell him about Dorothy and encourage him to search--in the town where she grew up--for the real roots of the fantasy that has kept him going.

We rarely see Oz--the fantasy, that is--directly. It is there, flickering, but it is mainly suggested. Above all, and this gives the book its quality, it is suggested in the need of the characters--fiery Aunt Em, abused and misshapen Dorothy, schoolteacher Baum, young Bill, the blithe and energetic makeup woman working on the film, dying Jonathan--to find a place for it in themselves.


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