Monday, April 21, 2008

What-the-dickens : the story of a rogue tooth fairy, by Gregory Maguire, read by Jason Culp - review

You know how sometimes, when you're reading a story that takes place in an imaginary world, the imaginary world is so fascinating that the story itself is really a bit secondary? Un Lun Dun was like that for me.

And sometimes, the imaginary world is so fascinating that you wish the author would spend more time exploring it and, actually, less time with the plot. I always wanted to know more about Neverland, for example, and I think that I'm not alone - witness Dave Barry's Peter books and Geraldine McCaughrean's (much better) Peter Pan in Scarlet.

But in What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy, Gregory Maguire maybe takes this concept a little too far.

The title character is a 3-inch-tall fairy born all alone and with no conception of who or what he is. He meets four different species of animal (including one human) before running into another fairy, who explains that he is a tooth fairy and introduces him into the totalitarian, hivelike tooth fairy society. What-the-dickens, with his questioning nature, soon learns just about all there is to know about this world, from birth to death, and so do we. In blinding detail. The lessons we learn about the tooth fairy caste system are hammered home with a big fat sledgehammer.

Meanwhile, the plot, such as it is, lurches slowly forward, dragging all this exposition like a fully loaded shrimp net through shallow water. In addition, the tooth fairy story is bracketed by a framing story that, right up until the end of the book, seems much more interesting than whatever's happening to What-the-dickens. Three children and an older cousin are stranded in their house in the middle of an apocalyptic storm, with no electricity and little food. Isolated to begin with by their fundamentalist parents' beliefs, Zack and Dinah struggle with their parents' teachings and with each other as they huddle together with their baby sister through a dark and stormy night, aided by their more secular cousin, Gabe, and his diverting tooth fairy story.

I kept waiting for the story to get back to them. Unfortunately, the book comes to a grinding halt just as dawn breaks and headlights are seen through the window. While they wait for nothing else to happen, Dinah quizzes Gabe about what's going to happen to the tooth fairies next, and then she answers her own questions based on what she remembers of the story. It's like a Teacher's Guide inserted right into the book, and we are meant to use this technique to speculate about what is going to happen to Dinah and Zack. But this is leisure reading, not a reading comprehension test - we bought the book to be Told a Story.

Gregory Maguire, whose work I usually like, just loves politics. In Wicked, he fed poor Elphaba through societies governed under a variety of systems so that the reader could experience each system's flaws first-hand. Even the marvelous Dream Stealer had its share of political examination.

This kind of display of allegorical virtuosity is ok if it advances the character, as Wart's experiences among the animals teach him about governance in The Once and Future King, but any lessons What-the-dickens learns from his observation of the fairies' militaristic collective (and it's not clear he's learned anything except he doesn't want to be among them) don't alter the course of the action until the very end.

The labored, drawn-out, oddly truncated end.

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