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In Oz, without his pride

Bernheimer is editor of the journal "Fairy Tale Review." Her most recent novel is "The Complete Tales of Merry Gold."

Fairy-tale author Angela Carter famously wrote that “ours is a highly individualized culture, with a great faith in the work of art as a unique one-off, and the artist as an original, a godlike and inspired creator of unique one-offs.” But, she continued, “fairy tales are not like that, nor are their makers. Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup? Think in terms of the domestic arts. ‘This is how I make potato soup.’ ”

Gregory Maguire makes potato soup that is dirty -- made with potato moonshine by drunken fairies on a binge of self-loathing, or maybe glee. How these delicious and dirty meatballs (and, like Carter, I mean meatball in a good way) ended up in airport bookstores is a bit of a mystery to me. Perhaps it’s that no one can resist a green girl.

Among many other books, he of course has written the bestseller that became the blockbuster musical “Wicked.” But Maguire’s prose has more in common with a lurching Tom Waits ballad than with a show tune -- unless Lisa Germano has done a version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” I haven’t heard. Maguire’s work is melodic, symphonic and beautiful; it is dejected and biting and brave. How great that people flock to these magical novels. Maguire takes us back to the roots of fairy tales (which, with their child abandonment, incest and poverty were hardly sweet stories for children).

“A Lion Among Men” is the third volume in Maguire’s Wicked Years series, and like the first two, the book is complex. Nonlinear and constructed, in fairy-tale fashion, of multiple stories-within-stories, the novel belongs to the Cowardly Lion named Brrr. (At birth, he said, “Brrr,” instead of “Grrr” because he was chilly.) Abandoned when young, Brrr is alone and has no sense of self; he longs for home. Employed as a court reporter by the Emerald City, he sets out to unearth answers about Elphaba, the Wicked Witch, and her child, Liir, the protagonists, respectively, of “Wicked” and the second Wicked Years volume, “Son of a Witch.” Along the way Brrr befriends a dying soldier; falls in love with a tiger; and interviews Yackle, the most poignant talking corpse ever to haunt an American novel.

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Here Maguire is exploring a deep, ecological position that humans are a terrible species as well as the history of Oz. References to changing regimes appear as quickly as pink and puce toadstools in an old growth forest. Never fear! There’s no time to get lost in these woods. Maguire is a fantastic stylist, and the novel contains wonderful motifs from a glass cat to a sweet bear to chanting ghosts to a tome from which people emerge.

“A Lion Among Men” represents an innovative departure from the traditional form of the serial novel, which often offers closure in the third volume. There are no answers here -- only more and more riddles and worry. This allows Maguire to draw the most attention to the book’s existential ruminations on luck. (Opening the book for the first time, I was elated to discover that one of its epigraphs about luck comes from a book I edited, to which Maguire himself contributed; I have never met Maguire, only corresponded with him over the ether, which keeps things mysterious and Oz-like.)

Back to the images! In fabulous details and self-mocking language, Maguire displays his gift for whimsical portrayals of the broken, the powerless, the hopeless, the bad. “Whimsy is fate too, just less knowable,” the book tells us. All the charisma in Oz lies with the characters who accept this intuitive logic of fairy tales. In its contemporary play with a very traditional form, “A Lion Among Men” offers a poetic meditation on isolation.

“You can only get out the way you got in,” the characters tell each other in one of the novel’s central riddles. So where does L. Frank Baum end and Maguire begin? The circularity of influence -- a phrase that appears in the novel -- is at the core of Brrr’s anxiety -- and Maguire’s, I think. It is the anxiety of an artist in control of his gift but rightly not wanting to own it. Maguire’s success is testament to his talent but also to the form of the fairy tale as rising in contemporary literature. In this world, which we all know is dying, even beauty is monstrous. Maguire, in a long line of fairy-tale authors, is on the path to a troubling, bright resolution.

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