True confession here. I don’t believe in fairies (sorry Tinkerbell), I don’t really believe in ghosts (sorry Dad), and I think psychics are just very good intuitionists…so why do I love magic realism and fantasy? Why is this literature and movie genre thriving?
Here’s one of many reasons. We know from cognitive and brain science that we have several brains, the more primitive brain at the center – the brain stem and the neocortex. In the central brain stem resides the amygdala which governs our limbic system which governs our emotions (this is explained very well in Roseann Bane’s Around the Writer’s Block.
This part of the brain is geared toward survival. It reacts instantaneously to fuzzy perceptions. It knows only three reactions, fight, flight or freeze. It sees a snakelike object in the grass and prompts you to jump or shoot. You jump and THEN you take a closer look and your cerebral cortex says, “Oh, that’s not a snake. It’s a stick.” Evolutionarily, the cortex developed later and surrounds the primitive brain and is where you do all your rational, creative, sorting, organizing, and planning thinking.
The point is, that part of our brain still sees the world in terms of magic – it sees ghosts in the flickers of peripheral vision, it sees zombies in that unexpected manikins you run into in the attic, it sees a weeping woman in the snow capped sign post in your low-beams at night, it provides the stories and images in your dreams for your thoughts, feelings and ideas.
Science fiction, fantasy, and magic realism also help us explore our deepest fears in safe ways. Bruno Bethlehem, in his book The Uses of Enchantment, famously asserted that the sanitizing of fairytales and folktales left children less equipped to handle the stress of life. Who knew, for example, that in Cinderella, the wicked sisters cut off their toes to fit their feet into the shoe?
Also, these genres feed our need for a spiritual connection to something greater than ourselves and to the inherent interconnectedness of all things.
Before I end, I ned to add a respectful disclaimer, in case I insulted all the ghost hunters and psychics out there. I don’t disbelieve in anything completely. I truly think anything is possible, but not exactly probable, so I look or the rational explanation first. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard sound bounce in unexpected ways to create the illusion of thumping up above when it’s really coming from next door.
I must also say that I see the possible danger of grandiosity, narcissism and avoidance when people start asserting they have special powers. However, to those friends of mine who make such assertions, I believe in radio waves, microwaves and other forms of communication that are undetectable to the human eye and ear, and I think you should keep honing your craft whatever it is, because above all, I believe in the inner wisdom of all things and the magic of the atom.
*You wake up one morning and for no apparent reason, everything has changed. Your mind is caught in a dark loop, endlessly repeating that you have no friends, you’re ugly, you’re fat, your writing is worthless, you have been teaching twenty years only to become a disorganized, boring, overly complex and uneasy teacher. And it’s not all in your head, because there was that comment from an acquaintance, that shaming rejection from publisher, those 30 agents who passed on your novel that was supposed to be your resurrection, that sidelong look from a colleague, and those student evaluations. When you stand at a party, no one comes up to talk with you, or people’s eyes go dull when you talk because you are so shallow. And why aren’t you like Karen Russell who at 24 got a story published in Zoetrope and now has a MacArthur genius grant? Anger builds at all the people who wronged you in big and little ways. You find yourself going over this same, dark, messy ground for the umpteenth time despite years of therapy.
You know this isn’t real. Only four days ago, you were thinking you were a loving, fascinating, beautiful person, as good as any published writer.
You know you should clap your hands over your ears, get out of bed, walk up the mountain past the shadows that tear at you, whispering. This isn’t real, you say to yourself, stumbling forward, not real, not real, not real, not. But the knowing comes from some part of your mind that has no flesh, and the voices aren’t on the outside, they’re inside. They’re the very cast of your blood chemistry, the design of your atoms, so real, so real, so real, that you think you would rather die than fight this invisible battle again, this civil war that makes you seem self pitying, irresponsible, disorganized, irritable, and erratic to others. And maybe you are, maybe it’s all just a matter of will, and you are lazy, lazy, lazy. Will you ever be free? The only honorable thing to do is quit your job so that the healthy people who deserve it can have it, or kill yourself so that you don’t have to walk this walk again.
If you have chosen badly, your spouse tells you he or she is sick of your shit, but if you’ve chosen well, he smiles sadly when he sees the signs and stands back knowing you’ll figure it out. Later he cleans the house and does the food shopping to lighten your load.
The survivalist part of your brain tells you that you have to exercise and eat right, and people will tell you to take medication, and maybe you should, but they scare you, so you don’t. You push yourself outside, because in the end that is the thing that has always saved you. And as you walk you call the right friend, and she, instead of trying to talk you out of it, says, yes, that’s how it feels, and it’s hard. And then the tears come, and the two sides of you, the chemical and the rational talk, taking turns with each other and your friend. And you remember not to ever judge others again, because this is how it feels to be inside depression, and no one from the outside knows what it’s like. It looks like nothing. It sounds like a head cold.
A half hour later, after the walk, if that was the particular cast of your genetic dice today, you feel better, but jittery. Your brain feels like it has been wiped clean. You can’t quite remember which street your house is on, because it looks different somehow, the angle has shifted or the light, or you are seeing it from a different time in your life, a time kicked up by that sudden bout of depression. The words threw, through and thru don’t look right, and you know that you knew which was which only yesterday, but for now, you don’t. You swim back through the murk to reclaim your former self and hope others don’t notice. You remember that it’s important to be who you are even if only a fraction of the world wants it, that it may not be the right time for you to become a successful writer, but that you must carry the flag of who you are until that time comes, even if it comes after you die.
This is one of the places magic realism comes from.
*Note to my friends: Don’t worry, I wrote this over a year ago. Thanks to the anti-depressant duloxetine building on years of therapy, I’m fine. This really is just a rumination on one of the many ways that fantasy and magic realism represent a facet of reality.
Ever wished to be in a Harry Potter novel? Lev Grossman explores the downsides of that wish in his anti-fantasy novel, The Magicians (Plume 2009). Magic turns out to be more boring, more complex and less uplifting than anyone might have hoped. And to its credit, when the violence in this novel occurs, (what little there is), you cringe, reminding you that, no, you really DON’T want to be Harry Potter fighting Voldemort.
What makes the book brilliant, is its meditation on the nature and purpose of magic: “‘Use magic in anger,’ warns the dean of the magical college where Quentin Coldwater and his friends train, ‘and you will harm yourself much more quickly than you will harm your adversary. There are certain spells … if you lose control of them, they will change you'” (88).
Later, the novel expounds on the danger of magic from a different angle, when the Quentin is undergoing the final college trial, traveling 500 miles to the south pole with nothing to protect him but magic. Having created a bubble of warmth around himself and added strength and speed to his legs, he cruises endless snow, remembering another teacher’s advice: “Once you reach a certain level of fluency as a spellcaster, you will begin to manipulate reality freely … your spells will one day come … almost automatically, but with very little in the way of conscious effort…For the true magician there is no very clear line between what lies inside the mind and what lies outside it. If you desire it, it will become substance. If you despise it, you will see it destroyed. A master magician is not much different from a child or a mad man I that respect. It takes a very clear head and a very strong will to operate once you are in that place” (161). The fantastical concept of magic stems from the real power of naming and speech, which can make present that which is absent, and Grossman identifies this core truth here.
What follows is a beautiful passage, “The stars burned shrilly overhead with impossible force and beauty. Quentin jogged with his head up, knees high no longer feeling anything below his waist, gloriously isolated, lost in the spectacle. He became nothing, a running wraith, a wisp of warm flesh in a silent universe of midnight frost” (162).
These kinds of passages compelled me to stay with the book. But my progress was made torturous by Quentin’s blockheadedness and the shallowness of his friends. Aptly named Coldwater, Quentin pours cold water on everything. While we can all relate to his search for happiness, I kept hoping he would figure out that happiness isn’t the point of life; it’s a poor substitute for fulfillment, the occasional side effect of living a life of purpose, which, according to Daniel Pink’s book Drive, is an inherent need.
But neither Quentin nor any of his friends develop any sense of purpose. Not one of them ever says to themselves, “Gee, maybe I could make the world a better place with this tool.” It’s downright odd. The only characters who come close, Quentin’s girlfriend, Alice, and his non-friend, Penny, get punished. Alice, by far the best character in the book, ends up with a bit part.
I’m not exactly criticizing the book for this, because Grossman made me care, and though it was slow, I was willing to flog myself to finish it and felt bereft when it was over. (The flog-marks are fading, thank you very much.)
So I’d say Grossman’s novel, the first of a trilogy, does what the best books do, re-defining and deepening its genre. But he uses too many adjectives (hint from a reformed adjective addict, don’t use more than one per noun on a regular basis). Also, we don’t need to see the main character going over the same ground 25 times.
“That’s when Death decided he wanted to become a stand up comedian. The idea reverberated with rightness. This laughter thing was invented by humans, completely unforeseen by God. Immortals didn’t get it. That’s why he had to, because, a good joke was like a thunderclap, a convulsion of life and death coming together in perfect balance, a hybrid.”
I’m delighted to announce that my story, “Death’s Debut” appears in this month’s issue in Eclectica Magazine at eclectica.org. I hope you’ll check it out along with all the other excellent stories and poems published there. I’m proud to be published along side them.
The idea for the story came from three sources, watching my 91 year old father “rage against the dying of the light,” a book by Steve Martin called The Ten, Make that Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make that Ten, and a folktale called “Death in a Nut” collected by Duncan and Linda Williamson from the Traveling People of Scotland. In this last story, a boy called Jack stuffs death in a nut and throws him out to sea to prevent him from carting off his mother. Chaos ensues. The idea that death might want to become a comedian was entirely my own.
My father curses when he can’t buckle his belt, or cut his food with a fork, or find the word for computer. “What the devil’s the matter with me?” he says.
“When I can’t find words, I wave my hands around like this,” I say. “Try it. It’s kind of fun.” Sometimes in my writing group (all women of a certain age) we all just wave our arms at each other.
Most days, the only silver lining of old age appears to be what little hair is left on my father’s head.
Fight fire with fire, mystery with mystery, death with laughter, I say. That’s why I wrote the story. I hope that one day, when death comes a knockin’, we’ll all be able to welcome him like a long lost friend.
In general, quibbling about categories and definitions annoys me. Categories are rarely consistent. Definitions rarely capture the whole thing. They are tools for grouping information to help us retain it, yet they can never contain the whole of what they point to. We shouldn’t mistake our finger for the moon, the Zen saying goes.
However, if categorization and definition helps us understand literature better, helps us to interact with it more deeply, I’m all for it. So even though I think magic realism and surrealism belong under the fantasy umbrella, and even though we are venturing into a Borgesian garden of forking paths here, it’s useful to ask, what is the difference between magic realism and fantasy?
Wait, what? Magic realism is a subset of fantasy? Well, the way I figure it, fantasy was the first form of literature. And by definition, fantasy is any literature in which “reality” (defined in western, white, agnostic culture as normal) is altered. Any literature that goes beyond the known, that externalizes the internal and unconscious reality, that inhabits the divine and sublime, in which the impossible and improbable happens, is fantasy.
But for some reason, my literary friends tend to relegate fantasy to the bad lit bin and accept magic realism as good. In fact the king of magic realism, Gabriel García Márquez, adamantly denied that he wrote fantasy: “Fantasy has nothing to do with the reality of the world we live in; it is purely fantastic invention, an inspiration, and certainly a diversion ill-advised in the arts” (quoted in Kroeber 130).
However, as I said in an earlier post, anyone who has heard “a woman screaming in the forest and follow[ed] the sound into the mouth of a mountain lion” will find the origins of fantasy. Anyone who has spun around with beating heart toward that flicker in the peripheral vision knows where ghosts come from. The amygdala is a crude but lightning fast instrument. So I have to respectfully disagree with the king.
Author Jon Evans, in a great blog post for Tor.com “Magic Realism: Not Fantasy. Sorry,” says we should think of fantasy as a spectrum with “surreal fantasy” to the left and “systematic fantasy” on the right…
“One Hundred Years of Solitude occupies the far left; a little further in is Ben Okri’s Booker-winning The Famished Road. Midnight’s Children and Little, Big occupy the centre-left. The Dragon Waiting and Patricia McKillip are dead centre. Jonathan Strange is center-right. Julian May is way out on the right, as is, um…Steven Brust” (Evans).
Seems reasonable. So why was García Márquez so adamant that there is a difference—no, a complete divide– and why does he share the disdain for fantasy that we typically find in universities?
The answer lies in the question of what these books do with reality and what the impact is on us.
(For the faint of heart, quit here and read the rest tomorrow. It was devilishly hard to keep this short, and I didn’t succeed.)
Tsvetan Todorov, a literary theorist famous for his treatment of the fantastic, said that magic realism disrupts our sense of reality whereas fantasy creates another completely enclosed reality. So says Lucie Armitt, anyway, in her book, Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction. Todorov claimed that fantasy “imposes absolute closure” and “implies complicity on the part of the readers” (Armitt 7). In other words, fantasy calls upon the reader to enter an unreal world and pretend that it is real. It seeks to make the unreal seem real and calls upon the reader to suspend his or her disbelief, as the old saying goes.
Evans agrees that what we typically think of as fantasy (J.R.R. Tolkein, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Terry Brooks) operates by certain rules. In it, the supernatural is regarded with amazement – it’s a stark contrast to what we see as reality. Magic is “systematic,” he says.
This would explain many academics’ disdain for fantasy –because they see it as too tidy, too predictable, too comforting. Literature is supposed to make you think and grow. How can we do that if we have absolute closure? More on this later in some other blog entry.
Let’s get back to magic realism, which Todorov thinks of as a subset of the “literary fantastic” along with surrealism. In contrast to fantasy, the literary fantastic has a “disruptive impulse” and “seeks reader hesitancy” (Armitt 7). The story begins in the “real world” and when something unreal happens, and the reader is never sure if the cause is supernatural or natural, such as a psychotic break or a drug induced hallucination (Armitt 8). According to this definition, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is an example of the literary fantastic: did she see a ghost or hallucinate it? Did the ghost kill the boy, or did she scare him to death? The movie Pan’s Labyrinth is likewise an example: Is she alive or dead? Did imagination save her or kill her?However, where does this put Kafka’s story, “The Metamorphosis” in which Gregory Samsa wakes up to find he is a giant insect? We are never meant to believe that he is simply imagining this. Likewise, in Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, there are no “competing readings of the text… revolving around two choices, the psychological or the supernatural” (Armitt 8).
Still – as Jon Evans says in his blog post, this literature “draws from the well” of political disruption, violence and chaos, where the “surreal becomes normal and the insane becomes rational.”
Another attribute of magic realism is that supernatural events are described with “a brick face” according to Garcia Marquez (quoted in Writer’s Almanac). The effect on the reader is that our sense of reality is constantly disrupted. We aren’t allowed to escape into another world that is orderly and consistent. We are left straddling many worlds, teetering back and forth uneasily between.
Karl Kroeber echoes this idea: “surrealism is a subversion of meaning, fantasy is a construction of meaning” (quoted in Le Guin). Though I disagree with him when he says that “Surrealism subverts in order to destroy, fantasy subverts in order to rebuild.” The point of the “disruption” or “destruction” of surrealism is, ultimately, to rebuild. Surrealists are not sadists.
Complicating these definitions is the fact that the concept of reality is culturally defined. Orthodox Christians consider God and the Bible real. Atheists consider both fantasy. Roman mythology was at one time was considered real; now the word myth is synonymous with lie. Native American writers such as Louise Erdrich and Leslie Marmon Silko write about things that most Caucasian Americans would call unreal, but which are very real to them.
So where does this put Aimee Bender and Karen Russell? Both of them come from the U.S. presumably where peace and (mostly) good order rule. Bender writes both kinds of stories: ones that take place in a recognizable reality and then diverge from it in “Tiger Mending” and ones that start in fairytale land and stay there in “Devourings.” She plays at both ends of the spectrum. So does Amber Sparks, a writer who I hope will soon gain a wider audience. Karen Russell belongs on the left end of the spectrum with her wrinkled old vampire who sits in the lemon grove hardly noticed by tourists and her Japanese women who turn into human silk worms.
I’ve raised more questions here than answers. And that’s the point. Armed with questions we become better readers.
Armitt, Lucie. Fantasy Fiction: An Introduction. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005.
Bender, Aimee. The Color Master. New York: Doubleday, 2013.
Evans, Jon. “Magic Realism: Not Fantasy. Sorry.” Tor.com. Tor Books. 23 October 2008. Web. 12 March 2014.
Kroeber, Karl. Romantic Fantasy and Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Critics, The Monsters and the Fantasists.” The Secret History of Fantasy. Ed. Peter S. Beagle. San Francisco: Tachyan Publications, 2010. 355-366.