Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Uh oh...it's magic

I was talking with a student today about magic-realist fiction, and it occurred to me that it's very difficult to explain why I think it works when it works, or doesn't work when it doesn't. On one hand, and on general principle, I don't like the stuff. This includes Garcia-Marquez, whom, like any sane person, I respect and admire, but who I've never really been able to warm up to. On the other hand, I can think of plenty of examples that I think work well, and that I quite like. I've mentioned a few here from time to time. I'm usually delighted when students throw something animist, magical, or supernatural into their stories, especially when they manage to pull it off.

So how does one pull it off, then? This is purely off the top of my head, since I am no expert on the genre, but here goes.

I think magic realism has to have some kind of strong cultural basis--that is, not the culture the writer comes from, but the culture of the story. It can't just happen in a story--it has to mean something, to the characters, to the history of the place where the story is set. For instance, if some kids are sitting around wanting some pizza, and all of a sudden some fairies fly out of nowhere to give them a bag of gold coins and a cab ride to the pizzaria, that's dumb. But if some kids are standing by the sea mourning the death of their father, a fisherman whose boat sunk, and all they've ever known is the world of seafaring, and they've grown up hearing all these legends about spirits in the water etc., and a beautiful but dangerous water nymph washes up half-dead on the shore and they end up going down into the sea to help her avenge the trident-carrying father who kicked her out for loving a human, who turns out to be the kids' father, who is not dead but has become a merman and is living in some undersea cove, that's also dumb.

But it does make sense. All the magical crap has to do with what the kids know, how they grew up, and what they believe in. A good magical element also ought, I think, to have some kind of metphorical power--some relationship to the real world, or to Freudian psychology, or to social trends, or to mass national anxiety, or something. Randomly occurring magic bucket-shaped angels filled with various soft drinks would not be good. But a bearlike silver-furred animal that looks kind of like your mother? Sure, maybe.

Magic realism, badly done, can easily come off like so much naive wishful thinking. (Don't you wish dreams could come true? Well...they can!) And all too often, it's used as a writerly convenience--for instance, is there a nasty character who deserves to die painfully? Invent a killer tree sprite with mind-reading powers and send one to knock him off! But when it's good, it feels like a natural product of the story and its characters--practically an inevitability, even.

Part of the problem in even talking about it, is that it all sounds awful in description. (This is the trouble with taking science fiction and fantasy seriously, too.) In practice, though, in the right hands, it can be great. Indeed, it can be unique--a writer with an original vision and a distinctive voice can use it to create a new kind of mythology.

Anybody care to throw in some choice recommendations?

12 comments:

Hugo Minor said...

What do you think about writers like Kelly Link or Aimee Bender? I'm not sure if they are necessarily magic realists, but I like their work a lot and think that whatever it is they are doing (magical realism, a dash of sci-fi, and a teaspoon of fantasy) works well.

Ray said...

You guys have a wonderful site. Nice observations, nice invitations to the rest of us to think.

I am sorry you don't think much of some magic realists, but maybe that's because of the label. Consider how Vonnegut played with mixing genres and, for a long time, told us things that we hadn't thought about enough and entertained us at the same time. Was he a "magic realist" or "science fiction" or just someone with important ideas that he thought might be communicated best if he got playful?

Novels work if the writer is honestly trying to say something important honestly. Technique is fun in seminars, but not much to readers who detect narcissism or insincerity.

John said...

What about Haruki Murakami, especially _Kafka on the Shore_? I'm not sure if I love it, as many others do, but I know I did like it. In this genre, I like an urban setting--a setting in which there often seems to be an absence of anything even remotely related to magic. But I wonder if that's just wishful thinking again.

AC said...

What about Louise Erdrich or Sherman Alexie? Is there a North American branch of magical realism that they might fall into?

gcm said...

I recently read 'The Falcon', a non-fiction narrative by John Tanner, born in 1780, who was kidnapped by a band Shawnee at age 9. He was sold to a tribe of Ojibwa, raised in that culture, only returning to the site of his capture in middle age.

The book is tremendous for a number of reasons, not least for Tanner's very sympathetic description of prophecy practiced by Native Americans, usually through the observation of vivid dreams.

At crucial points during his story, Tanner recalls how dreams - almost always told through women in the party - led him to salvation. For example, during a brutal winter, Tanner's adopted mother dreamt that Tanner would be led to a clearing with a hole that conceals a fat, hibernating bear. She describes the dream to Tanner. The next day he wanders through the wilderness, coming finally to a clearing. While exploring the clearing he accidentally falls into a hole - and discovers a bear. It’s killed, saving his family from immediate starvation.

Obviously, this ‘magic’ is more subtle than the kind in Garcia-Marquez’s works, but – maybe because Tanner’s account is told as a true – it has a similar effect: it challenges the boundaries of conventional belief, raising big – if implicit – questions about the nature of things.

Good science fiction does this, too. Aldolfo Bioy Casares’ ‘The Invention of Morel’ is an example that comes to mind.

Matt said...

It's tricky speaking about magic-realism as a definable thing because, depending upon the book/story, it can come very close to fantasy or scifi.

If there's a trick to making magic-realism believable/palatable, it's that the magic itself needs to be dyed into the threads which weave the story - if not from the get-go, then in a way which is somehow still stylistically analogous with the rest of the story, without appearing to be tacked-on (desperately or not).

Mark said...

Flannery O'Connor's idea that the more fantastic the situation, the more precise the writing has to be seems to account, in my mind, for the fantastic stuff that works. I think she derived her rule from Kafka. Gregor Samsa as bug standing on his hind legs trying to turn the doorknob with his jaws. The slow decay of his vision and the comfort he feels hiding under the bed. His dad hurling apples at him and the apples lodging in his carapace, gradually festering.

jrlennon said...

Yep, I really like almost all the writers you guys are mentioning; and I think Flannery O'Connor's comment is right on the money. I am always pitching that idea to students by using George Saunders as an example--you accept the situations in his crazy stories because of the precision and style with which he presents them, as well as the thematic appropriateness of his conceits. I'm quite a Kelly Link superfan, and Murakami too (though "Kafka" isn't one of my favorites), and I think these writers are among the more interesting practitioners of the form. I also really like (and have posted here about) fantasy writer China Mieville, whose great story about renegade urban streets I have pushed, with limited success, onto students as well.

rmellis said...

I don't like magic. I know, as soon as I wrote that, thousands of exceptions appeared. Oh, well. I do like witchcraft, though.

Dana said...

I want to read about the kids and the fisherman and the water nymph! Way to put that story out there and then be withholding.

Aos said...

Eric McCormack's Paradise Motel is worth reading. Like Garcia-Marquez, many of the "fantastic" elements in his fiction are rare but real (Garcia-Marquez' character born with a tail, McCormack's human hand found in someone's stomach during a dissection). But of course they take it from there.

You could argue that MR is less fantastic than realism in that many people do juggle reality and fantasy in their daily lives. Let's not get started on what people believe to be true...

I agree with you that there is a lot of sewage in the fantasy genre flotilla but I think it unfair to trash a genre just because it is a safe harbour for poor writers.

David Rochester said...

I think some of Ann Patchett's stuff walks the line comparatively well ... though I can't for the life of me remember the name of the book I read that fit into this category, and apparently I am too lazy to look it up. Anyway, I didn't like it, but found it only mildly eye-rolling, as opposed to dislodging my eyeballs completely, which is the reaction I normally have to magic-realism.