Knopf, 1992
371 pages
$22.00 U.S.

Kathleen Ann Goonan
Reviews
WAS
by Geoff Ryman

"A country is like a child," says Geoff Ryman, and his latest novel, Was, expands that intriguing and arguable idea (as well as its obverse) into a complex and rewarding experience. Was is a searching look at the roots of our desire for what lies over the rainbow, as individuals and as a country. In Ryman's book, Oz, that dreamplace of archetypal significance and power, has permutated into the paradoxical Was, whose meaning is gradually revealed.

Was is a book about childhood. Not about childhood as we prefer to see it, but as it really is: a time of powerlessness combined with a sometimes painful openness which imprints us forever with an emotional country. The Wizard of Oz is a perfect metaphor for what Ryman is trying to show us: there is a place and a time of color and beauty and hope and love, and too often it is wrung out of us by others, sometimes--no, usually, with the best of intentions. Was is a book about ruined lives, full of rage, sadness, and bitterness, and about how we humans continue to pass that negative legacy to the next generation.

I first read The Wizard of Oz the summer I turned eight. It was the first real book, (after a long spate of Bobbsey Twin books which I suddenly realized didn't count at all) I remember reading. Wedged into the back of a new Comet station wagon with two small sisters as my family traversed the great plains on our way to San Francisco and thence Hawaii, I realized that, oddly, I was travelling through Kansas as I read the book, but that was about all that I noticed. Completely entranced, I did not finish the book. Instead, when I finally closed it, I emerged; I resurfaced. I was different, and I knew it. It seems to me that the measure of great literature is not so much that the characters change. It's that the reader changes.

The power of Was lies in Ryman's assumption that all of us were similarly affected by either the book or the movie. It might seem odd, at first, that Ryman center a huge, ambitious novel around another book, the making of that book into a movie, and the reactions of other characters to that book and movie. But Was quite successfully plays off the enormous energy emanating from Baum's original work and the movie. Unless we had our head in a bag, the merest mention of Oz triggers an entire and oddly powerful panoply of images which reach deeply into every one of us, which Ryman uses with enormous skill.

Was is a three-tiered novel which skips between, then draws together, the story of the "real" Dorothy, the story of the "real" Judy Garland (Frances Gumm), and a present-day horror movie actor who is dying of AIDS.

The story begins when Dorothy Gael, whose mother and brother have died of The Dip after her ne'er well-to-do actor father drifted away, arrives by train at Manhattan, Kansas, to live with Aunty Em and Uncle Henry. Drummed into submission by Em, who replaces Dorothy's beautiful white spangled dress with dull pioneer garb and soon kills Toto for bothering the chickens, Dorothy is eventually sexually abused by Uncle Henry. Shocking, you say?

Indeed, it all is, to first personalize this icon of Americana--there is more to it than just Dorothy--and then use it this way. And disquieting and absolutely horrific, for we see that there is no escape for Dorothy, none at all--except in her own mind, where she eventually lives almost exclusively.

Alice Miller, a brilliant contemporary psychiatrist, has authored a number of rather disturbing books (disturbing, that is, for those who would like to believe that children, even young ones, are not capable of depression), among them a classic called The Drama of the Gifted Child. Ryman prefaces several chapters with excerpts from another of her books, For Your Own Good: The Roots of Violence in Child-rearing, which underscore his point about the vulnerability of childhood and help us see the true story of Jonathan, who carries the present-day storyline.

Jonathan is a gifted, color-blind actor who has fallen into a career as the main character--a sadomasochist--of an ongoing horror movie series.

He has not been abused in any discernible way--quite the contrary. He was the pampered only child of a kind and loving couple. But we see through Ryman's depiction of Jonathan's very early years, when he was not color-blind, that he was enormously sensitive to the emotions of those around him. He hates the new television which sits in the house of his parent's 50's house like a huge eye because ". . . it was full of murder. Dale Evans would be tied to a chair--horrible violation--and even though he knew Roy Rogers would arrive in time, riding Trigger, it was still terrible . . . if the only comfort was knowing it was not real, why watch it at all?" p.187 An artistic child, he smeared surfaces with color--often unsuitably. We see that his mother's responses were rather reasonable, yet we also see their powerful, debilitating effect. He tested at "near-genius" level--and that, according to Miller, actually puts children at special emotional risk. "Jonathan could remember the moment of dismay when the infant [himself] realized that he would have to use the same word each time for the same thing. He could remember the horror; he realized the size of the task ahead of him. He became enraged with disappointment. The world should work so that everyone understood out of love, as he did. Jonathan did not begin to speak until he was three years old. He was angry. He rejected the world out of rage." p. 185.

As does another character, Frances Gumm, later to become Judy Garland. Here is another child who plays out a common, powerful scenario: it is her role to keep her family together. When eventually she fails, rage enters the vacuum which is left. And the rage is not directed toward her father, whose blatant assignations with other men her mother could no longer brook, and who Ryman portrays sympathetically, but toward her mother, also drawn with enormous even-handedness.

Yet Ryman, having reached a master level as a writer, does not leave us with simple rage and bitterness, with the full and awful realization of this horrific reality he so skillfully shows. He goes far beyond this. All of his characters, who may seem to have been beaten by life in the end, are filled with a transcendence which is fully communicated to us.

"I am a fantasy writer who has fallen in love with Realism," says Ryman at the end of the book, not in an Afterword, but in the last chapter, making himself a part of the text.

And so he has. All of his earlier themes have matured and bear fruit here. Jonathan, as he lays dying of AIDS, tells Angel (one of several angels in the book), the manager of the motel where he has found temporary asylum, that Dorothy "goes to the Land of the Dead to find Life. Isn't that dumb? Why can't we find it here?" In The Warrior Who Carried Life, Ryman's second novel, a fantasy, the main character does exactly that--goes to the land of the dead to find life. But in Was we have reality--or Realism, which is a bit different; there is still a lens, of course. Ryman seems to be saying that we are shirking our human duty to linger in childhood's realm, to yearn for Oz instead of facing the truth of Was. But often, because of our past, we cannot help going to the Land of Death, which is really the land of deadened emotions, where we or others deny that certain events ever happened; where we decide, at a basic and often inaccessible level, that certain emotional landscapes are impermissible. Ryman's childhoods--always that of girls, until Jonathan--are luminous, filled with color and life. In his previous books, political horrors inflict a psychotic break and force his characters brutally into a psychically maimed adulthood; here, Jonathan is the victim of his own sensitivity to life.

Ryman's portrayal of a male homosexual couple living in a real present-day L.A., coping with full-blown AIDS, illustrates his new commitment to realism. Homosexuality has always been a central facet in Ryman's books. In The Warrior Who Carried Life, the main character is a woman who is magically changed into a man for a year and then takes a woman lover as a companion in her heroic quest. Milena in The Child Garden first destroys the fragile and beautiful lover relationship between herself and Rolfa, a female, genetically engineered polar bear by trying to make Rolfa "normal," and is tormented by another troublesome women with whom she has had sex for much of the book. But these characters and relationships had the lyric gloss of fantasy, with all societal edges removed or transformed by fantasy. In Was, Ryman gives us real human characters, with depth and life and pain, to whom we can relate, because he gives us the tools for understanding them empathically.

Ryman touches on his present philosophy about fantasy and horror when Jonathan is the guest of honor at Balticon. Jonathan meets Moonflower, an artist who has created a particularly nasty sculpture. "I usually draw elves," Moonflower says when complimented. "And seagulls and stars." When asked about her masterful change to horror as a subject, she is surprised, and replies, "The elves and this. They're the flip side of the same thing."

"The same thing," in Was, is denial. Jonathan's ability to successfully portray a horror character, his acting energy, comes from his suppression of emotional events which were horrific to him, in his enormous sensitivity. He can't "see red;" does not allow himself anger, because it hurts others too much and he can't bear to hurt them. Once he begins to break through to his real suppressed self, he is able to see color once again. Dorothy and Frances Gumm are both expected to look and act younger than they really are, like children when they are young women. When Dorothy finally tells the substitute teacher, a young New York actor named Frank Baum, about her uncle's sexual abuse of her, Baum tries to do something about it. But no one else believes her--just as we saw denial nationalized in the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings--and she is thereby sentenced to a life of prostitution and insanity. Frances Gumm's mother tried to shield her daughters from the reality of their father's homosexuality, and suffers for it the rest of her life. Jonathan is simply the victim of his own hairtrigger internal censors, overcompensating by changing from a raging monster--an accurate description of all children at one time or another--into an eager-to-please boy and young man.

I said that Was is a book about childhood, and that Ryman says that a country is like a child. This is not just a book about individuals, but a book about the life of this country as Ryman sees it, from the time when Em's abolitionist father moved his family to Kansas to help vote it into the union free to the present day. It investigates the nature and roots of hypocrisy, and gives us one strong character who is able to turn from what Ryman shows perhaps too transparently and condescendingly will be a life of meaningless conformity to help others as a therapist. Was is about "wasted lives" and about why they are wasted. It is also about redemption, when Jonathan realizes that "The land of Was was cradled in the arms of Now like a child." When he reaches full understanding of this, he is able to leave his horror persona behind at last in a beautiful and quite fitting final scene.

Happily, this is a novel which is difficult to categorize. One might call it postmodern for the way in which Ryman presses real history into service -- "The Wizard Of Oz," the text and movie, are the same in his fictional world as they are in ours. He invents a new subtext which seems more real, more believable, than the "fictionalized" account of Dorothy with which we are all familiar. Yet his inventions are the fiction, whereas the historical fiction is our reality. One could easily rack up many points in favor of a postmodern diagnosis.

But Was could also be called anti-postmodernist for its avowed rejection of surface, for accomplishing its goal of helping us to gaze deeper into the inner workings of the creative process and beyond the stories we have been told and those which we tell ourselves to find something which feels absolutely real in a world where sometimes surface seems to be a message in itself, and thus all that ought to matter. Was does not really need the author's intrusion at the end of the book, which seems a bit of an explanation of why he has written this particular book. The book speaks for itself so strongly that we certainly understand, and thank the author for going to the trouble. In speaking of the need for fantasy, Ryman says, "Oz came swimming to us out of history, because we needed it, because it needed to be. . . . Had Oz been blocked, it would have taken another form in the world. It could have come as a cyclone.

That doesn't make it true."

He could have added, "It might have come as a Holocaust."

We, collectively, are the abused souls whom Ryman is trying to reach and, if not release, at least illuminate. Jonathan faces not Oz, but Was, and certain death, and that soon. Ryman does not have to spell this out for us; he does not have to invent this world for us. It is already ours, and he awakens it. Geoff Ryman cares deeply about that which is most central and true in all humans--the capacity for love and redemption and the ability to have a direct relationship with the world. This is an ability which is buried inside everyone, but which, in Ryman's work, always finds powerful expression when rushing through the life-twisted corridors toward color, toward life.

And, most importantly, he is able to take us on that journey as well.

The end

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Copyright 1992 Kathleen Ann Goonan All Rights Reserved.