Few American stories have been adapted as often as Frank Baum’s 1900 publication, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which has spawned movies, books, musicals, even bedsheets. In her new novel, Going Out, British author Scarlett Thomas offers up a modern-day retelling of the fable which highlights its candidacy as the ultimate Western self-help story.
Set in suburban England, Going Out stars a group of Reality Bites–meets–Bridget Jones twentysomethings in search of cures for their various personal afflictions. At the center of the story are Luke, a twenty-five-year-old boy-man who has a rare allergy to the sun, and his best friend Julie, a bright but fragile young woman whose extreme anxieties have trapped her in a safe but unchallenging routine. When Luke decides to “go out” into the world for the first time to meet an Internet healer, Julie is forced to escort him and a cast of their variously adrift friends and neighbors to Wales—via the “yellow roads,” or B roads, on the map. The allusions to the original Wizard of Oz story are fun to pick out: the extreme weather conditions in which the friends begin their journey, the “witches” who interfere, and the characters themselves, each of whom harkens back to one of Baum’s original Emerald City journeymen.
More interesting though, is Thomas’s preoccupation with the fictive versus the “real.” Luke’s entire sense of the “real” world comes from reading and from watching TV, which, as Julie reminds him, is not the same as “real life.” But how is it different? And how different from the rest of us is Luke, with his dependence on television to show him what, for instance, a boat is (he pictures the ship in Titanic)?
Thomas spends the first half of the book setting these questions up; the road trip to the healer doesn’t commence until page 222, by which point the story’s momentum is floundering. Luke is the ultimate synthetic boy—his clothes are made from all man-made fibers, his house is kept free of smells, smoke, and dust mites, and everything he knows is filtered through, in his words, the “fucking, goddamn screens” of his TV and his computer. So his foray into the great beyond promises to offer some revelatory stuff about what happens when “real” experience collides with canned.
Unfortunately, once Luke actually sets foot outside the house, his muddled reaction to “reality” gets lost in the shuffle of road-trip banter. When at last he comes face-to-face with the Internet healer he has traveled so far to find, we don’t even get to see their interaction.
But for all Luke’s longing for a life beyond TV and Julie’s insistence that she prefers “moments, you know, like when things happen and they just don’t mean anything” to “the whole beginning, middle, and end thing” of TV stories, the book itself doesn’t quite transcend the classic sitcom narrative structure. Thomas has a gift for dialogue— the repartee between her characters is quick, believable, and funny—but her reliance on dialogue as a driving force can make the book read like a screenplay: the character’s voices are alive and compelling, but their internal lives remain opaque. As a result, Going Out falls short as a truly convincing fictive journey. But as a modern day Wizard of Oz self-help fable the book satisfies; just like Dorothy and her comrades, Julie, Luke, and their fellow road-trippers find what they need without a Wizard, because in fact they’ve had it all along.