When L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, he intended it as a response to the gruesome European fairy tales in which goblins sprang out of the woods and princesses cut their own toes off to make the magic slipper fit. “It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale,” Baum wrote, “in which the wonderment and joy are retained, and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.” Just about a century later, the young English writer Scarlett Thomas has given the wheel another half-turn: Her novel Going Out is Baum with the heartaches and nightmares put back in. No goblins need spring from her woods; the ordinary facts of life in poor, exurban England are gruesome enough.
Here we meet Luke, a young man allergic to sunlight, who lives in a bedroom entirely devoid of natural objects, and his best friend, Julie, a pan-phobic science whiz who subsists on instant soup and energy drinks. When Luke finds a healer named Ai Wei Zhe (say it quickly) who says he can cure Luke if only he can get himself to Wales, the motor of the quest narrative begins to chug; we know Luke will go, and we know the going won’t be easy. The surprise and delight in Thomas’s novel is how long it takes for Luke and his friends to set off down the yellow-brick road. Two-thirds of the story takes place in their equivalent of Kansas, a morass of stores with names like the Edge (pizza) and Xoom (clothes) that will ring disturbingly true even if you’ve never been to England. Luke and Julie languish, watching television and reading, among others, Haruki Murakami and Douglas Coupland, whom Thomas seems to have been reading as well. From Murakami she has learned the art of conjuring up impalpable regret, and from Coupland, a kind of dry, quick humor that transforms ordinary situations—a video store during Oz Theme Week, e.g.—into catalogs of psychopathology.
But when, thanks to witchcraft and a winning lottery ticket, Luke and Julie and their friends finally hit the road, the narrative creaks like the Tin Woodsman as it struggles to get its characters into line with the Oz conceit. Will Luke see the sunrise? Will Julie find the courage she so desperately lacks? Going Out is too sunny and in the end too Baum-ish a novel to answer these questions in any but the way you think they will be answered. It makes you wish that Thomas had gone farther, and given her fairy tale more of the old European darkness.