11/02/2011 08:24 am ET | Updated Jan 01, 2012

Occupy Oz

In 2000, John Updike wrote a consideration of L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz" for the New Yorker and called it OZ IS US. He must have meant "the U.S." as well as "we Americans." Since Updike gave an early appreciative salute to "Wicked" in that same magazine, I have been partial to his take on that weird utopia, however pasteboard, Technicolored, giddily dangerous if not demented it appears. Updike said, "a dizzying, virtually bacterial multitudinousness came to characterize Oz as sequels multiplied its regions and its strange and magical tribes..."

I have spent nearly two decades thinking and writing about Oz as the U.S. capers ever more erratically toward a kind of social schizophrenia. The left is intimidated by the right. Devotion to a holy past blinds us from thinking rationally about the future. The economically fucked-over seem largely traumatized, a la Stockholm syndrome, into identifying with the very Wall Street tycoons who engineer their incarceration in poverty. Ergo, a visit to Oz seems less like fantastic escapism than it used to seem. The U.S. has begun to live up to, or live down to, the nonsense of a children's simplistic Zanyland, USA.

Yes, Mr. Updike, Oz is us. And so I make no bones about borrowing the phrase of the moment and explaining my reasoning about why I, and the readers who follow my work, choose to Occupy Oz.

As a kid, I moved on from adoring the MGM sound-stage cornfields and castles of Oz to caring deeply about Narnia and Earthsea. In time I graduated to Middle-earth, Homer's Mediterranean cruises and the Camelot of "The Once and Future King." All these great dramas posited mythic lives set in landscapes of consequence, where history happened and didn't unhappen. But the references were largely European. Narnia and the Shire are as identifiably England as the Hundred Aker Wood from "Winnie-the-Pooh" is. So of course is Camelot. Mordor is Stalinist Russia; Earthsea is the Aegean.

But as an American facing a world of magic, I felt impoverished. Us Americans? What did we have that was as large, as complex and troubled, as schizoid and brave and blind? Sure, we had Washington Irving, we had Poe, but these were pocket-sized entertainments, and could not imply the unwieldy, bulky nation I lived in. Then, somehow, I saw it. We had Oz, an amusement park tricked out with singing Scarecrows and vaudeville Lions and witches straight out of central casting--at least one of them was.

So when, as a writer, I felt that I must find a national canvas large enough to be able to encompass the dizzying breadth and variety of America, I didn't have far to look. Oz is us, after all. It is ruled by executive fiat. Its separate populations neither know nor care about each other. The central government remains aloof from the concerns of the provinces. Hearsay and prejudice militate, um, witch-hunts. And this all before I began to write my novels set in that benighted and bewitching land.

"Wicked" takes a look at this, and at how evil appears different depending on which cause you credit for its existence. It was written in the aftershock of the Bush-Reagan years (oh how rosy they now look!). "Wicked" sang to readers and soon enough, to Broadway audiences. The Witch had already sung in my book, though: I gave that Elphaba a good voice as a badge of honor. In America everyone deserves a voice. That is what makes us U.S., no?

But history keeps happening. Gitmo and Abu Ghraib happened. So along came a sequel, "Son of a Witch," featuring the attempt of a feckless ragamunchkin citizen to break a political prisoner out of the chief prison in Oz. The witch's largely ineffectual boy, Liir, doesn't succeed, but he does fly in defiance against the capital, learning that for the lowly, safety in numbers, well, counts.

Was it prescience that made me understand, the year before those twin twisters, Lehman Brothers and Bernie Madoff, tore us all up, that the Cowardly Lion would be brought low by conviction in an accusation of graft, aggravating a banking and financial crisis? On the run from the law, brought low by public opinion, in "A Lion Among Men" our furry hero is almost indistinguishable from us. He passes.

And now, in the barking mad end days of 2011, "Out of Oz" appears. Glory-OZ-sky, I do believe we ain't in Kansas no more no more. The bankrupt and ego-heavy Emerald City wages war against the upstart Munchkins. Dorothy comes back to Oz and no one sings in her honor; she is brought up on charges of murder of those witches. Yeah, times have changed. In my take on Oz, history, like shit, happens.

The need for heroes, however lowly--especially lowly--has never been greater. So I am in the trenches with Occupy US. Occupy Oz. We can't trust the central government, nor even the strange-skinned hero or heroine who, come from elsewhere, might save us. Oz is us. We are all we've got.

But one last thing, and Updike caught it, too. There is a sharp foxy tang in resistance, which surely characterizes US as well as Oz. Updike sniffs out " undercurrent of dissidence in the Oz books..." So did I, even as a kid, and I could catch the sweet whiff of it even off the TV in the postwar annual airings of the 1939 film. "The Wicked Years" are novels that grew in that climate. That they were inspired by children's books, and even now are sometimes mistaken for the same, is not, to my mind, a problem. All rebels were kids once. Where do you think they learned to rebel?

And the rainbow, that famous rainbow about which Judy Garland croons? The thing about a rainbow is it arches over everything, even the populations that are screaming at each other, fighting, slaughtering each other. It doesn't discriminate. From its apex to its profoundly mysterious footings, it sees that all colonies, patroons, hill stations, hickabilly warrens, and emerald cities alike, they all share a common border.

That is the border between what they are and what, in the light of luck and maybe magic, but certainly intelligent design concocted by themselves, they might become.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Be the most interesting person at your dinner party.