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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Was by Geoff Ryman

Was is a riff on The Wizard of Oz. It tells the stories of Jonathan, an actor dying of AIDS and obsessed with Oz, and Bill, a high school graduate in the 1950s trying to help lost souls in a mental ward for the elderly. It flashes back to various fictionalized moments in the life of Judy Garland and L. Frank Baum. But mostly, it concerns itself with the story of the "real" Dorothy Gael in the 1880s.

The book is quite good, although profoundly bleak (with the exception of Bill's story). In the afterword, Ryman writes that he is drawn to fantasy because of the way it reminds us of how far our world is from perfection, and he is drawn to reality because it punctures the illusions of fantasy that we try to hide behind. And so Dorothy, whose encounter with substitute teacher Baum inspires his novel, has the worst possible life. Her mother and brother dead of diptheria, her father having abandoned her, she is sent to live with her Aunt Emma and Uncle Henry in a one-room cabin. Her life is nothing but privation and suffering, horrific abuse and loss. Any bit of hope or joy -- affection from her dog, kind words from a stranger, the possibility of a genuinely caring relationship -- is quickly taken away or perverted, such that it began to feel almost sadistic on the part of Ryman. And lest we think that despite this life Dorothy might find a way to hold onto a scrap of dignity, it turns her (albeit understandably) into a bully who inflicts the suffering she has experienced onto others. As Ryman explicitly states, that first instance of abuse "taught her how to hate."

For this reason, the bulk of the book was difficult for me to read. And not just because of the life Dorothy led -- I realize Kansas in the 1880s was a difficult place to live, and surviving could be a struggle -- but because of the cynicism that seemed to underline the story. Certain passages in the book seemed to paint all the people (at least all the white, Christian people) of that time as selfish and greedy and violent. I think it is telling that Ryman writes that people "Worshiped what was good, able to worship what was good by deliberately using it to cover up the bad." But focusing on the good does not necessarily mean denying the existence of the bad, just as fantasy can be a respite from the harshness of reality, not just a way to hide from it.

The interesting thing is that many of the specific characters and events in Was belie the cynicism Ryman elsewhere shows. Aunt Em in particular was a complex, fascinating person. A strong, intelligent woman whose struggles (caused by both circumstances and bad choices) turned her into a bitter, angry, irrelevant woman, she still had a spark of decency inside her. To me, she is just as tragic a figure as Dorothy.

And Bill, a dumb high school jock killing time as a staff member in a nursing home until he joins the army, could have been portrayed as a privileged man oblivious (if not complicit in) the suffering around him, but instead Ryman makes him a hero of sorts. His encounter with the elderly, demented Dorothy changes him in the ways you would think, and it was touching to see compassion and understanding develop in him. Dorothy, too, was much more likable here than as a child bully, and at the end of her life she finds a note of grace and salvation that is quite moving.

I can't say I loved this book (oh my God the BLEAKNESS of Dorothy's life) but it was very good, and I am glad I read it.

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