Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Things in My Cabinet: Magical Realism is Actually Just Realism

Here is the Lady K. That top window? is part of a GIANT
USED BOOKSTORE. Also, the cafe is named after a
LADY PIRATE. And they serve BEER. It is all of
the awesome. Via Lauren C. on Yelp.
Just before I left Western Mass, I was in my most favoritest cafe, just, y'know, failing to read The Fellowship of the Ring because I was flirting with the barista (who happens to be my boyfriend, which is great, because he flirts back like he means it) and a guy I know sat down next to me with a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I mentioned I had recently reread it after trying it and completely failing to like it at the age of 16 or so, when I couldn't keep all the Arcadios and Aurelianos apart (I still can't, but now I suspect I'm not really supposed to, plus I found the family tree in the front of the book this time and bookmarked it, son) and had come away this time liking it okay. Which makes me feel wildly guilty, because it is Great Literature and all that, and a book snob like me is supposed to think it's the greatest thing since paperbacks! But...

I mean, what's not to love? Via Art Slug. I told my new friend (who was, unaccountably, still listening thoughtfully at this point), the thing is, I think it's supposed to be such an important book because it kind of introduced the West to the whole idea of Latin American magical realism (although I have precisely no citation for that claim whatsoever and it is baseless hearsay; however, Marquez, um, wrote the book on magical realism, so to speak, and Solitude is held up to be the shining example and whatnot - really! Wikipedia said! he won a Nobel Prize, come on) but I had just read too many mediocre magical realist novels to be able to love Marquez when I came back to him. Like, in high school, we had to read Like Water for Chocolate - which might have been okay, actually, in the hands of an English teacher less pathologically pathetic than the one I had that year (poor woman, she was the most defeated teacher I ever had) but I remember it as, well, thoroughly meh. Not terrible, just....vaguely goofy. Same with In The Time of the Butterflies. There were some others, I think. Midnight's Children, another one of those oh-my-god-it's-so-ahmayziiiiiing novels that I failed to find more than lukewarm. (Less I be seen as an indiscriminate Rushdie-basher, I passionately adore the book he wrote for his son, Haroun & The Sea of Stories.) I actually like Toni Morrison, even though I had to read her in high school too, and it's very well known that there's nothing like sophomore English class to utterly destroy any hope you have of loving literature, but the magical realism itself in her books didn't sing out especially loudly - it's the characters I remember from her books, not any particular sense of magic.

The thing is, I love the idea of magical realism. I explained this to my new friend. I want so badly to love it. For example, the short story I'm forever golloping on about, Yuri Olesha's "Love", is totally full of magical realism! And I'm always eager to like magical realism, in any form. I just don't think it covers up for only-okay writing, I guess. (Cue the hate mail.) Like, Jorge Luis Borges? I think he is the most amazing. There's an argument among the literati about whether he was a magical realist or a precursor to magical realism; either way, his work is incredibly magical. But I suppose not all that real, in the sense of writing about families and generational conflicts and multiple perspectives and political happenstance and all that. Maybe I just don't understand it? Maybe there's a cultural context I'm missing?

My companion listened to all of this with some mildness, occasionally nodding, and when it seemed like I was finished wandering around on my errant thought train he gave a little shrug and said, "Well, I guess I feel like magical realism is just realism."

I blinked.

"You know," he went on (I'm totally paraphrasing, I don't remember the exact words, I'm not Marcel Proust), "we perceive the world in magical ways. Humans think much more like characters in a magical realist novel most of the the time anyway."

I had never thought of it this way before. He didn't mean the world is literally the way it's presented in a magical realist narrative; he meant that we experience the world in mysterious ways that are often much better illustrated by magical realism than they are by, you know, anything else. For example, something I have always been profoundly annoyed by is Proust's famous madeleine scene, where he eats a cookie and suddenly remembers HIS WHOLE CHILDHOOD IN PERFECT DETAIL because, you know, that's how memory and evocation work.

This is much funnier if you read the NPR article about how
he obviously had never actually eaten a madeleine in his life,
linked below. Via newyorkette's rejected cartoon archive - she
calls this one "Proust's Freebird," which I think is HILARIOUS.
Okay, I'm exaggerating. In fact, other than the ridiculous grandstanding of the language, it's not a bad representation of the way smell or taste can bring up a distant memory. What I actually mean is that the passage has always struck me as being incredibly, horribly dull. He manages to dredge up this memory, and that's cool, but my GOD is it tedious! There's no associated feeling - he talks a lot about how suddenly joyous he is, for no good reason, before he figures out what he's being reminded of, and then there's a whole bunch of nothing when the actual memory shows up. We get a detailed breakdown - if you're me, excruciatingly detailed - of his life in Combray once he remembers it. Which is to say - the whole scene is an obvious freakin' setup. He just wants to talk about Combray. The madeleine didn't recall shit, kids. It's a device. (Recent research suggests there WAS no madeleine. HA.)

I don't know about you, ladies and germs, but when I am suddenly filled with a remembrance of things past, called forth by some small joy like the kind of cookie I haven't eaten since I was a kid, I don't suddenly recollect every chronological detail. I get these sweet, paper-thin flashes, each one full of a strange warped color and savor, and they seem, well, a little bit mythical. It is assuredly not like just, y'know, hanging out in the past the way I hang out in the present. Things have an aura in memory, a weight or a lightness that they didn't possess for me back then. All of which Proust completely fails to mention. he gives us a highly evocative moment - sudden, inexplicable pleasure! what's that? - and then completely abandons it for an emotionally disconnected narrative that makes it totally clear the whole damn thing was an emotional hoax. And that's what I mean about magical realism, maybe - in the hands of a magical realist, I think, that whole scene with the madeleine wouldn't have been some obnoxious excuse to tell a story the author wanted to tell. I imagine, instead, that it would be a genuine, evocative exploration of the strange and mysterious processes of sense and memory, which we all know are highly unreliable and do not work along the lines of tidy hyper-detailed linear chronology. (Man, I've been wanting to bash that scene in public for YEARS. I feel GREAT.)

I think of it like this. Like, yes, you could see it as just
leaping around. If you really wanted to. Or you could
see it as what it is: somebody flying with joy.
Via The Weather Up Here.
The reason I keep bringing up "Love" (yes I'm doing it AGAIN) is because I see it as a perfect example of the magical-realism-is-actually-just-realism thing I'm trying (vaguely) to argue here. It's about a modern man of reason who begins perceiving the world in impossible, magical ways because he is falling in love. He flies. He sees apricot trees grow instantly from a fallen seed. The tap talks to him. He doesn't like it - he begs the universe to let him off the hook. But there's nothing to be done. That's just how the world is. So, okay, let me amend "magical realism is just realism" to say, instead, "magical realism is just emotional realism." I hope I am being clear here: I don't mean to say that magical realist writing represents the world as it really is. I mean it represents the world as we perceive it often with more accuracy than non-magical realist writing, which leaves no room for the peculiar leaps, associations, superstitions, workings of the unconscious, dream fragments, and other inexplicable phenomena that permeates our actual ways of thinking more often than not. It seems to me that we often see, not in symbols the way Proust thinks of symbols, but in analogies and images that make not so much a conscious kind of sense as an intuitive, mystical sense instead.

These lil dudes change color super fast! And by "change color"
I mean they TURN TRANSPARENT. See, this? This is
ORDINARY REALITY, KIDS. Via Scientific American.
Of course, magical realism as a genre of fiction (or is it a style? Wikipedia sez both, but that can't be right, can it?) isn't just "anybody who feels like writing kinda magically"; it's got some defined characteristics and whatnot. But it's a broad definition, and can be argued to basically include anything that presents the magical or fantastical in the same context as the ordinary, without differentiating between them - that is, essentially presenting what we perceive as mystic, mythic, fantabulous, or impossible as being just as everyday and acceptable as that which we imagine to be "real." (I say "imagine" because I think that quite frankly a world that includes color-changing octopi and glow-in-the-dark insects as facts of life alongside dentist appointments and grocery shopping is fundamentally very weird anyway.)

Part of the reason I have been thinking so much about this is the novel I am writing. At base, it's about a reasonable, modern Jewish man who sees his father's Orthodox faith as being sort of sweet in its adherence to the sacred, but still basically ridiculous, blind, and foolish...that is, until a series of strange and miraculous events start happening to our little rationalist hero, and he has to start asking himself if maybe the experience of wonder is pretty cool after all and whether he wants to ruin it with logic - in order to KNOW the TRUTH! - or accept foolishness as a part of experiencing the marvelous. At the risk of ruining the suspense, what I really wanted was to make it clear that everything that happens to him could be explained logically, albeit by a stretch if necessary, if he really really wants it to be. That means the choice is up to him, and his own way of perceiving the universe: is it sleight of hand, or is it the Hand of God? (I'm pretty proud of that phrasing. I use it a lot.) He could conceivably argue it either way; the question is what he wants the world to look like. Either he gets a world of mysteries in which he must be willing not to ask too many questions, or he gets a tidy world of knowledge and answers that leaves out a whole lot of the joy. I was really struggling to create a balance where things were magical enough to seem potentially divine, but not so magical that there couldn't be a rational explanation.

A still from Sylvain Chomet's extraordinarily lovely film
The Illusionist (2010), which is based on an unproduced
script Jacques Tati wrote for his estranged daughter.
So my friend's casual comment kind of floored me, because what he was basically suggesting was that I could stop worrying about making everything logically explicable. "Magical realism is actually just realism," emotional addendum or no, is a way of saying that most readers intuitively grasp the difference between fantasy (zowie, actual out-of-the-world powers!) and the fantastical (let's face it, the powers of the real world are very peculiar). They don't need to be provided with a tidy explanation in order to understand that something that seems miraculous might be perfectly ordinary really. After all, that's how magic tricks operate. We know they're not really magical, but we still accept them as magical - perhaps because the creation of the illusion makes use of so many of our intuitive, unconscious ways of thinking. In a way, this is kind of the question at the heart of all my work - the novel, this blog, the Museum, my goddamn daily existence: the world is ordinary, but it's also full of marvels. What is more TRUE, the ordinariness or the wonder? Am I in denial about reality if I say wonder? Am I missing out on the meaning of life if I say the ordinariness? In ordinariness is held many things, from paying the rent and doing the dishes to, well, war, terror, death, know, stuff that happens every day.

Except wonder, also, happens every day. The decision I've come to is that one is no more true than the other. You've probably heard me say this before, in some form, but I'll say it again: the weirdest thing about the world is that the fantastical, the miraculous, the joyful, the sacred, all those those things just sit next to the greed, poverty, tedium, apathy, anger, corruption. There's no big war between them. One side won't win. I used to like to think there was some epic battle going on between the forces of beauty and the forces of - well, not darkness so much as apathy, which seems to me to be the root of all evil - but I've changed my mind. The world is much weirder than that. There's no triumph; there's not even an opposition. It's just, well, miracles on one hand and Miracle Whip on the other. From the sublime to the ridiculous. And this is why I think I agree with my quiet friend at the bar: trying to pretend that magical experiences are somehow less true than the other kind strikes me as basically absurd. What the heck do we know about reality? We're a bunch of monkeys that can't even manage to agree about whether we are monkeys or if some big beard in the sky made us out of dirt, for Chrissakes. (No pun intended.) Yeah, I'd say magical realism is no less real than Proust's teeth-grinding detailing, or even works I love to death like Grapes of Wrath, which is poetically abundant and astonishingly alive and also full of symbols and intuitions, although I don't think he meant it to be magical at all. Too bad, Johnny boy! Life is too weird for the extraordinary not to creep in around the edges, unless you're actively holding it off with a shovel. And if you are, well, who's in denial now?


  1. I'll comment more thoughtfully after sleep has happened, but I just want to say, I want to read YOUR novel, Jericha, someday, please.

    1. Hey, Kate, if you want to be a beta reader, I'd LOVE it.

  2. sheesh. . . what the. . . you write all fancy-like. I like it!

    I've never read "Solitude", but I read the first hundred or so pages of "Love in the Time of Cholera" and just put it back in my drawer and said, "I'll read it when I'm out of other books." "Midnight's Children" I actually really enjoyed, but I guess maybe I should try "Solitude" because although I really disliked "Love in the Time of Cholera", I also really disliked "Satanic Verses". . . so I suppose Marquez could be like really enjoying one book then really being disappointed by another by the same author, only in reverse, and I just haven't read the one I really like yet.

    And although I've never read Proust, your description of his memory reminded me of the entire book "To the Lighthouse" where each gnat's ass detail of the hosts recollection was drawn out. . . I longed for death as I read that assignment.

    Regardless. . . what do I think about your actual point?. . . hmmm. . . I don't really know. I'll have to think more about it. You're welcome.

    1. I never picked up Love in the Time of Cholera, so I don't know. I do know Solitude is supposed to be his masterpiece, so maybe Cholera just doesn't stand up? I have a weird thing where I like to gripe about the books everybody else says are So Great Zomg, which just makes me sound like a hipster (although I DID TOTALLY finish Gravity's Rainbow, even if I can only remember about three scenes out of thousands of pages.)

      Tell me what you decide you think about my point when you've made up your mind. I'd like to know.

    2. How many of the three scenes involve fecal sex, light bulbs, or spam?

    3. Ooo, look at you go. Yes. No. No.

    4. This will be like that game "Mastermind" I have one black peg, and nothing else. . . bananas, and pavlov's dog?

      Have you read Kafka on the Shore? That's a decent example of the genre.

      I'm "reading" (it's an audiobook, so really the author is reading it to me) "Aegypt". The author makes the point that what's really amazing is not the concept of magic itself (he uses the example of lay lines and stone circles, but of man's insistence on magically interpreting what might otherwise be considered mundane occurrences, of his ability to interpret the normal world through magical eyes. I'm not sure I agree with either of you.

  3. miracle or Miracle Whip? That's awesome!

    I don't even know where to begin in responding to everything in this post except that now I'm stuck thinking about my own writing and in particular this bit I recently wrote about an evoked memory but it's all flashy and not a sequence of events about being held in a towel by a woman the boy suddenly realizes was not his mother.
    And how much of the rest of this story fits within this description?


    1. Flashy sounds like how memory actually works. I'd rather you think about your writing than mine, actually. That makes me feel like I Said Something Of Worth instead of just Blathering On.

    2. I don't think you ever blather, even when you are.

      I am now internally conflicted about what I'm working on. I did not intent magical realism with it, but I can see how it could be classified as such. At least the part up to where I am now in it.

  4. I've tried to understand what is defined as magical realism, but I can't seem to grasp it. Speaking of In the Time of the Butterflies...someone gave me a copy a few years ago. I tried to read it but couldn't get into it. I still have the book, so I think I'll try again. :)

    1. Oxford Dictionary defines it as ""...a kind of modern fiction in which fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the 'reliable' tone of objective realistic report, designating a tendency of the modern novel to reach beyond the confines of realism and draw upon the energies of fable, folk tale, and myth while maintaining a strong contemporary social relevance. The fantastic attributes given to characters in such novels—levitation, flight, telepathy, telekinesis—are among the means that magic realism adopts in order to encompass the often phantasmagorical political realities of the 20th century."

      If that helps.


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