Note: Still working on the book.
It’s funny how the act of writing can take us places that we never intended to go.
When I started this post, it was meant to be an in-depth review of Son of a Witch, written by Gregory Maguire. I was going to talk about the ways in which Maguire touches upon questions such as, “How do you follow in the footsteps of a highly dysfunctional, famous predecessor?”, “What does it mean to have a personal identity?”, and “What does ‘control of your own destiny’ imply?”
Witch and the Warlock, Illustration by Mark Summers. Image Source: Behance.net. For more illustrations by Summers see this post.
But I may have to share those thoughts in a different write-up. This one became something else. Rather than really dive into the book, I’d instead like to focus on the superficial and trivial. Maguire’s peachiness, the general whininess of the titular character, or the unjustified cynicism that pervades Maguire’s Oz will be dealt with elsewhere. Here, I’d like to rant about about something completely unrelated: the audiobook narrator. (And more’s the pity, as it happened to be Gregory Maguire himself.)
Generally, I applaud authors who read their own work. Malcolm Gladwell, for example, brings an added dimension to his arguments in Outliers and Blink. Through his performance of the text, he provides emphasis to key points and makes you feel as though you were discussing the ideas at a dinner party.
Neil Gaiman does something similar when reading his stories. Misters Croup and Vandemar of Neverwhere, for example, become more sinister and disturbing as read by Gaiman. So much so that I prefer the the audiobook version of the characters to how they are portrayed in both the original BBC broadcast and as I imagined them when first reading the book.
Maguire’s narration contains none of this. Indeed, it even proves an important point. The ability perform a piece is not the same as the ability to create it, and, just because a writer can sling a sentence does not mean that he can competently deliver it. (To a rapt audience or not.)
I’ve written about the importance of narrator before. A good narrator has the ability to completely transform a story.
As narrated by Frank Muller, Stephen King’s Drawing of the Three takes on a life of its own. Each character has a distinctive voice and the nuances of the prose positively ring. You can hear the world weary cynicism in Eddie Dean’s voice and the psychosis of Odetta Holmes and her alter ego, “Detta.”
Certainly, the roots of the magic are present in King’s writing, but it really is more than that. A huge portion also comes from the interpretation that Muller chooses to give to the characters. Would Pirates of the Caribbean be the same without Jonny Depp’s shambling, squinted eyed portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow? Of course not, that’s why he gets paid in the millions.*
Muller brings the same sort of interpretive quality to Stephen King’s prose. An interpretation that not only improves the work, but makes it significantly better. In the introduction to the audiobook recording of The Waste Lands, the next book in the series, King said that Muller’s voices were the way the characters were “supposed to sound.” That is high praise.
Unfortunately, Maguire’s performance doesn’t bring the same life to Son of a Witch. Far from it, actually. As read by Maguire, the magical land of Oz feels narrow, populated by cynical and priggish people who are trying to engage with grand ideas and failing miserably.
For example, the lilting and frilly intonations of Glinda make her sound a superficial airhead (which she is); Liir an uninspired/uninspiring nobody with no confidence in himself or anyone else; and the Unionist monts are harrumphing old “biddies” (Maguire’s word, not mine). That’s all the characters are. There’s no subtlety in the performance, and it kills whatever depth might be hidden in the prose. Worse, because this is Maguire reading Maguire, the interpretation feels definitive.
When I read Maguire’s original work, Wicked, several years ago I didn’t feel this bothered. I didn’t really care for it, but I came away satisfied. Again, there was the same tendency toward preachiness, cynicism, and philosophical wandering. But in that case, the work was performed by another narrator and the story populated by stronger characters. This made it possible to overlook the weak spots. Here, I wasn’t able to get past the Maguire’s voice.
Which I suppose bothers me at a more fundamental level.
I hold a few strong opinions about artwork and its interpretation, and one of the most foundational is that there should never be a “definitive” perspective. As far as I’m concerned, not even the author’s vision is final (even though the writing is a product of their mind).
The reason for this is quite simple. Writing a book is a great deal like giving birth to and raising a child. Though the book may inherit certain qualities, it also becomes it’s own entity. The book needs to either sink or swim on its own merits, and Son of a Witch doesn’t. There’s no room for interpretation.
The vision that Maguire provides feels definitive, and it smothers the potential for flight and fancy.