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?