"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The End Of Magical Realism–Finally!

Isabel Allende has recently published a new novel in which she abandons her decades-long stay in the world of ‘Magical Realism’, and comes down to earth.  The result is disastrous as noted by The New Republic’s Maggie Shipstead:
Readers, confronted by fiction set in remote places and eras, are likely to suspend more disbelief than usual; the mingled facts and mysteries of the past make good fertilizer for fantasy. Add a dash of the supernatural and an avalanche of detail, and suddenly the whole enterprise is so heightened that soap opera plots and overwrought prose seem like purposeful stylistic choices. But when those plots and that prose are grafted onto the here and now, as in Maya’s Notebook, and subjected to the accountability of realism, they fail to provide either truth or pleasure.
Many have struggled through 100 Years of Solitude, and have put down every Isabel Allende book  after 50 pages feeling cheated.  They neither get insights into human nature and behavior – the essential value of literature – nor get any meaningful or historical context.  When fantasy and reality are mixed in a romantic, folkloric hymn to otherworldliness, one is left unsatisfied and impatient. 

What are Magical Realists saying to us about human ambition, desire, or disappointment when the characters are influenced by djinns, spirits, and phantasms.  How can place, setting, and historical context provide clues to motive and reaction when they are dreamland fantasies? How can one appreciate, follow, and understand a writer’s literary purpose or personal convictions if each novel is set in a half-real, have fantastical world?
I wonder if, in Allende’s work in general, exaggerated elements that might be read as magical realism aren’t sometimes just examples of unsubtle characterization and the kind of fuzzy wish-fulfillment that runs rampant in romantic fiction, powered by a yearning for a world full of spunky, crime-solving grandmothers and lovers who are endlessly patient, generous, and tender—and possess perfect bodies. Allende includes “emotion” on a list of forces accommodated by magical realism, but if an excess of emotion isn’t accompanied by elements of unreality, what distinguishes the work from standard-issue melodrama? (Shipstead)
It has always been a surprise that Magical Realism, but especially the Latin American version of it has been so highly-regarded.  Many critics have suggested that this literary love affair had more to do with multi-culturalism and ‘progressives’ search for non-white, non-European authors.  Magical Realism satisfied that search for cultural diversity in many ways:
South America was and is continually fractured by regional wars, border conflicts, internal disputes, regimes of various political persuasions; a vast tropical continent in constant turmoil, and on top of that, the South American Indian heritage seemingly co-existing at the same time. It is a land where dualities and dichotomies are the rule, not the exception; the urbane and the Indian, the spiritual and the superstitious, the civilized and the rustic, the city and the jungle, the mundane and the exotic. (Bruce Taylor, margin.com)
Perhaps more relevant is the adoption of Magical Realism by Postmodernists and Deconstructionists as their own step-child:
A list has been compiled of characteristics one might typically attribute to postmodernism, but which also could describe literary magic realism: "self-reflexiveness, metafiction, eclecticism, redundancy, multiplicity, discontinuity, intertextuality, parody, the dissolution of character and narrative instance, the erasure of boundaries, and the destabilization of the reader." To further connect the two, magical realism and postmodernism share the themes of post-colonial discourse, in which jumps in time and focus cannot really be explained with scientific but rather with magical reasoning; textualization (of the reader); and metafiction (Wikipedia)
Magical Realism was coined in Germany in the 1920s in response to Weimar Republic painting which tried to explore the reality behind surface appearances:

This philosophical spirit animated artists like Braque, Picasso, Dali, and many others who dissembled ‘reality’ into component parts for better understanding of the whole; and who distorted it to show that the perception of reality was always subjective, if not feverish.

Authors like Joyce and Faulkner are inheritors of this artistic/intellectual movement.  In their long interior monologues characters like Rosa Coldfield and Molly Bloom are purely subjective, recounting history and personal events in their own way.

Magical Realism as it evolved into the popular, melodramatic, romantic Latin American version lost all of its intellectual vigor; and authors were less interested – like Faulkner and Joyce – in defining character, illustrating human sensibilities, and integrating the subjective and objective worlds of reality – than in simply creating a fantastical universe.  Reading Marquez or Allende is like going to a circus.  You don’t care about the meaning of clowns, or the weird and twisted side shows.  You just want to suspend your disbelief for an hour, be titillated, and go home.

Louis Proyect quotes Theo Tait from his LRB review in 2005:
With time and overuse, artistic style degenerates into mannerism. This is especially true of magic realism. Following the success of Gabriel García Márquez, a flood of semi-supernatural sagas was released all over the world – full of omens, prodigies, legendary feats, hallucinatory exaggerations, fairytale motifs, strange coincidences and overdeveloped sense-organs (all accepted placidly by their characters as part of the everyday run of things). Wonder and novelty were always an important part of its appeal, so the style had a built-in obsolescence: the decline into artificial gesture and cheap exoticism was inevitable.
The other problem with the style is its tendency to degenerate into a cozy and narrowly illustrative form of fiction, full of operatic clichés: passionate lovers, wise old women, tyrannical patriarchs – a sort of politically correct fairytale.
To be fair, Shakespeare was no stranger to mystical reality.  The ghosts of Banquo and Hamlet’s father, and The Weird Sisters are just a few:

Shakespeare, however, never confused reality and the supernatural. There was no doubt that Hamlet and Macbeth saw ghosts; but these were simply real characters with an extended life.  They had unfinished business with the real characters of the play, business which involved only them. We, the audience, are not asked to abandon our sense of reality.  In fact, the ‘ghosts’ of wronged people are staples of modern psychoanalysis.  The images of a mother we hurt, a friend whom we betrayed, a child we ignored are permanently in our minds.  They pop up at unexpected times.  They have a life of their own; but they are part of our very real past.  Whether the ghost of Banquo was a real supernatural appearance or merely the projection of a guilt-ridden brain is insignificant.  Whatever its form, it illustrates a very dramatic and essential feature of Macbeth.

A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream is pure fantasy.  Once again, Shakespeare does not ask us to figure out what is reality and what is fantasy because the difference is obvious. The work is a pure, unadulterated, magical world into which real people enter.  They do not themselves become spirits, like characters in 100 Years of Solitude, but interact with them. The Tempest is similar.

I am an adherent of The Canon, and believe that not all works of literature are the same.  There are some which stand out far above the rest because of their enduring insights. King Lear is not just a text to be deconstructed like a User’s Manual or slave journals, but a masterpiece of insight, humanity, philosophy, and history.  Absalom, Absalom is perhaps the most important American novel ever written because of Faulkner’s uncanny understanding of culture, ambition, family, and human nature. 

Tennessee Williams is a significant playwright because he understands how the world of personal fantasy, illusion, and longing is as important and as real as the gritty, threatening, and imposing one around us.  Hundreds of writers from Aeschylus to Richard Ford have demanded much from us, and asked us to experience mortality, moral failing, cowardice, love, responsibility, and indifference. 
Isabel Allende, Marquez, and other Latin Magical Realists demand nothing more than a lazy and uncritical acceptance of the authors’ creation.  Who cares if what we are seeing is real or unreal, they ask? Life is just a mishmash of shamans, witch doctors, spiritualists, and seers along with the rest of us. 

Allende’s disastrous turn to realism gives the like to her Magical Realism.  When required to create a dramatic world with real people and events; real crises, accidents, and confrontations, she cannot.  Any slavishly loyal critic who continues to insist that Allende had any more to say than children’s fantasies is dead wrong. 


  1. Wow.

    "Isabel Allende, Marquez, and other Latin Magical Realists demand nothing more than a lazy and uncritical acceptance of the authors’ creation. Who cares if what we are seeing is real or unreal, they ask? Life is just a mishmash of shamans, witch doctors, spiritualists, and seers along with the rest of us."

    "Any slavishly loyal critic who continues to insist that Allende had any more to say than children’s fantasies is dead wrong."

    What an ethnocentric way of thinking. You speak as if you have all the authority in the world to completely disregard an entire literary genre, as if the works produced within it are simply nonviable.

    What if that is exactly the point? Perhaps some cultures (Latin or otherwise) believe that life really is just a mishmash of various magical elements? I belong to a culture that walks the line between "magic" and "reality" because that is what we believe shapes our world. We all know that there is not only one way to view our environments.

    Magical realism may not fit neatly in one genre but who cares?

    1. Agreed. To each his own. Perhaps Allende is simply not a 'realist' author. That's okay. I think it is good to stretch and even to fail in order to improve.
      There is a place for Magical Realism just as there is a place for realistic fiction (what the hell does that mean anyway? All fiction is non-real i.e. made up!) and there is place for Fantasy and Romance and Historical Fiction and ....

      Keep up the great work Allende!


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