Category Archives: Magical Realism

How the past retells itself

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Flying Balloons.jpgWith the Adirondack Balloon Festival around the corner, an excerpt from my magical realist novel, Fallon’s Truth, seems in order.  The protagonist, Fallon, cannot reconcile her magical past in Chile with her banal present in New York City. In a sing-song voice, the past keeps retelling itself in her head at inopportune moments.  In this flashback, Fallon is referred to as Sister, her older brother is Big and her younger brother is Little. Eustacia is Fallon’s mother and Walter is her father.

Things began to happen in Chile that could only happen in the land where the earth ends. One day, when Eustacia was supposed to be cooking a pot of beans and Big was supposed to be watering the lawn, they began talking about the Big Bang and black holes. As they talked, they salivated and gesticulated. They drifted away from their posts, down the tiny street on which they lived, and out onto La Avenida de Las Condes, with Sister worriedly following.

“Did you hear? Scientists picked up a hissing sound on their cosmic recorders. They thought it was pigeon droppings on their antennae at first. But do you know what it turned out to be?” Eustacia rhapsodized.

“Yes! I read the same article!” Big said. “In National Geographic.”

“It was the left over sound of the Big Bang!” they exclaimed in unison. Sister was puzzling over how they could possibly tell that this hiss came from the Big Bang, especially since it could so easily be mistaken for pigeon droppings, but Eustacia and Big were talking so ecstatically that they began to physically leave the ground.

Thinking quickly, Sister ran back into the house, rummaged through the utility drawer—such a mess—and grabbed a ball of hemp twine. By the time she caught up to them, they had drifted down the avenue, but were still hovering a foot from the ground, talking so fast that their breath was lifting them like hot air balloons.

She tied the string around their ankles, and just in time, too, because a surprise thermal swept them high into the air. The ball of twine spun so fast in the cage of her fingers that it burned her palms, but she hung on with all her might. Eustacia and Big were oblivious. Other children were out, flying their kites, and when they saw Sister with her magnificent kites, they flew theirs closer. Sister had reached the end of her proverbial rope and was leaning all her weight backward to keep Big and Eustacia from flying away when Little popped up behind to lend a hand.

“Look out!” he cried. He pulled his sweater sleeve down over his hand and wrapped the twine around his wrist, jerking it to the side. “The kids are going to cut the string.”

When Walter stepped off the bus that brought him home from work, this is how he found Sister and Little, flying Eustacia and Big high in the blue sky. They only became aware of his purple face when he reached over their heads, grabbed the twine, and began reeling Eustacia and Big Brother in, spluttering epithets.

Walter, dear,” Eustacia said as soon as her feet touched the ground, “we were having such a lively conversation.”

 “They could have been killed!” Walter raged, shaking his finger at Sister and Little. Sister began to cry in earnest now, and Little to blubber.

“It is all my fault,” Big said, stepping protectively in front of his younger siblings.

“What are you talking about?” Eustacia looked in puzzlement from Walter to the children and back again. “Why are you so angry?”

“I’m not angry!” Walter said, turning a deeper shade of purple.

“But you’re shouting.”

“I’m just trying to make myself heard!”

Well,” Eustacia said as she drew herself up very tall and cold. “I never. Big, children. Let’s go. Father is in a most disgraceful state. There can be no good reason for such bad behavior.” Lifting her chin, she walked off with the children trailing behind her.

Walter immediately became apologetic.

But when they got back to the house, the kitchen was on fire and the lawn was drowning.

The Case of the Unsaved Document

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spaceIt happens more often than you care to admit. You type a computer document, save it, revise it, and save it again, then exit, only to return and find none of the changes are saved, or, more distressingly, that you are unable to find the document at all. You might have indulged a Where-the-fuck-is my-document-I know-I saved-it moment, or considered medication for Alzheimer’s. But before you go postal on Microsoft or commit yourself to the hospital for the typographically challenged, consider this.

You may have fallen victim to the Parallel Universe Syndrome (PUS), a hypothesis, posited and currently undergoing study by Dr. K. L. Davidson professor of English and the absurd. Davidson contends that there is a little known command reached by random key punching, which clicks you into a parallel universe, where you did indeed follow correct document-saving protocol. However, the save button clicks you back to your own universe, where you promptly exit, none the wiser. Meanwhile, all your revisions are still in that parallel universe, unsaved, unwashed, and unshriven.

While this revelation doesn’t actually help you save changes to your documents, it at least preserves the possibility that you are not necessarily technologically inept, or teetering toward dementia, though Davidson has been accused of these things in both the personal and professional arena.

Davidson has been able to repeat experiment results for PUS, though never on purpose.

She is confident that once she discovers the configuration of the PUS command, she will be able to program the shift key to reconcile multiple realities with one click.

 

 

Synesthesia, Metaphor and Oranges

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Citrus

  1. In a recent interview with The Collagist, I spoke about how metaphor is the core magic of writing. For many, metaphoric thinking comes naturally, but more and more of my students have difficulty going there. Here’s a foolproof way to fall backwards into metaphor, and if you’re trying to overcome an addiction, it can be a good substitute high. 
  1. Acquire an orange or other fruit. Don’t do this from memory. Get the physical thing. Describe it physically using all five senses:

Look at it and describe it in extreme physical detail.

Touch it and describe.

Squeeze and chew it, listen and describe.

Smell it and describe.

Taste it and describe.

  1. Next write all the things you associate with this fruit: smell, color, taste, etc. This is a a very quick exercise where you do very little thinking and choosing, you just blurt. Don’t worry about whether it makes any sense. The definition of brainstorming is that no idea is wrong or stupid. Put it all down whether it makes sense or not, but keep coming back to the fruit and branch out from there.
  1. Answer the following questions to create metaphors. You are now being asked to free-associate like in question 2, but to go one step further…keep free-associating until you find a truly unusual correspondence between two things which on the surface are very different, but which in some essence are similar. In other words, brainstorm, but don’t always chose the first thing you come up with. Keep brainstorming until you find a certain resonance between the physical sense of the orange and the animal or thing you are comparing it to…when you find the right word, you will literally feel a sense of release or expansion in your body, an internal “ah” where the feeling and the words reverberate with each other and make each other seem bigger or more rich. If you don’t experience any of this, don’t worry, just be silly.

a) How does the smell move inside your nose?

b) If the smell was a kind of animal with a distinctive movement, what kind of animal would it be?

c) How does the taste move inside your mouth?

d) If the taste was a world event (a party, a war, a rally, a nap), what kind of event would it be?

e) What kind emotion is the color of this fruit?

f) If this fruit was a building, what kind of building would it be?

g) If you went inside this building, what would it be like?

h) If this fruit was a kind of weather, what kind weather would it be?

i) If the feeling or texture of this fruit was a certain habitat (beach, forest, desert, suburb, city), what kind of habitat would it be?

j) When you take the skin and bend it next to your ear, what does it sound like?

k) If this fruit were an instrument, what would it be and how would it sound if you played it?

l) If this orange was a form of locomotion, what would it be (a plane, a train, a flying dragon) and how would it feel to ride it?

See, who needs drugs? All the benefits and none of the side-effects.

  1. Now look at all this mad scribble, and pull out the best parts. Fashion some kind of statement about this in a paragraph or three, making sure that it is full of surprising images and physical descriptions and associations.

      5. Now see if you can fashion this into a poem. Start with the sensory information and       try to end with a leap or discovery. Here’s something I wrote from it: 

Strawberry

This strawberry is my daughter’s pursed red mouth

that my husband fell into the day she was born

and never recovered from.

This strawberry is a song in my mouth

full and soggy as a French horn

A cellar’s cool respite on a hot

summer’s day.

This strawberry is a furry heart, the ripped

valves of my sister’s,

The dark, blind love between my siblings that

never blooms

This bruisable flesh,

this gravity’s center,

this Tibetan temple with no doors

guards secrets

attained only by

silence

 

 

 

Spontaneous Combustion, Music, and other forms of Play

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Karen Russell

After her mother spontaneously combusted on the altiplano between Chile and Bolivia, Fallon turned her head, saw herself reflected, beautiful and male, in the face of her older brother Ovid and fell in love.

This is the opening line of my novel-in-progress The Ciphery, where the main character tries to figure out how a person can ever trust herself in a world where reality is a matter of perception and the improbable has already occurred. I hear the opening line to the tune of Pink Martini’s “Le Premier Bonheur Du Jour”.

In a former post, I said I would periodically post links to music from the playlist Ciphery theme music. Though I understand that many write while listening to music, I can’t actually do it for long, because hearing is my dominant mode of information processing, and my attention goes to anything audible first. However, music is a quick way to get back in touch with where one has left off, while it pleasantly promotes theme and tone continuity.

As I write this post, I’m at the Associated Writers and Writing Program Conference 2015 in Minneapolis, MN. Just listened to Karen Russell’s keynote address, “The Paradoxical Usefulness of Non-Utilitarian Motion AKA Play.” It was far too brilliant for me to absorb every word (especially after getting up at 3:30 to catch a plane to Minneapolis and listening to sessions all day), but the gist of it was that play – which by definition has no purpose and is done for its own sake– has a transcendent, revolutionary, and healing purpose. And that’s what we writers do.

She gave an example of how stroke victims heal more by trying to simulate the motions of a virtual dolphin than by repetitive goal-oriented movement. The seemingly random motions of a flailing baby wire our brains for language, and the air-bubble rings that dolphins make, for no other purpose than to have fun, distinguish them as having superior intelligence. She said play is the seedbed of all language and that it can’t be reduced to its effects, hence the paradox. We play to play, which makes us better writers. And, I might add, as soon as we play to get better at writing, we cease to play.

She said much more, but that’s all I’ve got for now. I’ll post a link to the written version, if she posts it.

I also attended a GREAT panel called, “Nerd Novels: Exploring Worlds of Knowledge in Fiction,” led by Peter Mountford, Jean Hegland, Michael Byers and Susan Gaines and another great session on the uncanny with Kelly Link, Steve Stern and Karen Russel, where I became aware of the magical realist oriented Small Beer Press, and I attended a session on why fairy tales continue to haunt us. More on all that in a future posts.

AWP was fab as always. The bookfair reminds you that the creativity thrives under the radar of “the market.”

XO to everyone!

Why We Can’t Let Go of Magic

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Illusion Magic

True confession here. I don’t believe in fairies (sorry Tinkerbell), I don’t really believe in ghosts (sorry Dad), I don’t believe people can fly (sorry superman), 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. It is sometimes called the Leopard brain says John Medina in Brain Rules. I’ve also heard it called the lizard brain. (Gladwell’s Blink is also a good source,)

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. I’m guessing that the primitive brain is the seat of Freud’s “unconscious” and the id whereas the cortex is the seat of the conscious and all our ego and spiritual constructions.

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.

So magic realism, fantasy and science fiction work part of our perceived reality.

Having said all this, let me add a respectful disclaimer… 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. And 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 the atom.

A ghost hunter I once met said that spirits attach themselves to people with “cracks in their psyche,” and a doctoral friend whose brother was schizophrenic and cousin is a practicing psychic, told me that tribal shamans and psychics tend to be people who are emotionally unstable – schizophrenic, bi-polar, etc. Why might this be? I’m guessing it’s because that brain stem is probably more active in those people. Certain filters are gone which gives them unrestrained access to all parts of the brain. And just as poets, through years of practice, can more quickly access their creative brain than most people, people who have achieved emotional balance can hone their access to the wisdom of the lighting fast and intuitive primitive brain.

So that is why we keep coming back to magic realism, fantasy and science fiction.

P.S. “The Haunting of Zelda” was published in Stories We Tell available for sale at: http://www.storytellersanthology.com

Depression and Other Reality Shifts

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Depression*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.

Finding Your Tribe

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Early in the morning, a chickadee sings outside my window, two notes, B flat to A flat. I don’t hear an answering call, and eventually it moves down the street, the call getting fainter and fainter, until finally it’s gone.

My friend Ron MacLean, who works at Boston’s wonderful Grub Street writing center and has published three books, says he doesn’t give up on a story until it has been rejected 40 times. Given the lousy odds, why isn’t it enough to write in our journal? Or share a story with our friends? Why do we keep sending our work out to be rejected over and over again?

There’s always the hope that we’ll become one of rock star writers. And then there are the Pulitzer prizes winners, though they usually don’t end up at the same camp fires as the millionaire writers. I’ve known successful writers with more than ten published books who still have to work a day job and steal time to write on the side.

Then there are the nobodies write something only to have it attributed to someone famous, as is the case of Bessie Stanley who wrote a poem called “What Constitutes Success” in 1905:

He has achieved success who has lived well,
laughed often and loved much;
who has gained the respect of intelligent men
and the love of little children;
who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
who has left the world better than he found it,
whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;
who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty
or failed to express it;
who has always looked for the best in others
and given them the best he had;
whose life was an inspiration;
whose memory a benediction.

This quote is usually attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson in a tweaked version.

Good words, no matter who wrote them. Other visionaries have similarly inspired: Gahndi: “Whatever you do may seem insignificant, but it is veryimportant that you do it.”And my favorite from Martha Graham: “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”

But with so many amazing writers already out there, does the world REALLY need another one? Does the world REALLY need to hear MY voice?

Birds sing to find their mates, wolves howl to find their pack, and we send our work out to find our tribe. In order to figure out who to send your work to, you have to read the journals. And there are a lot of quality journals putting out innovative, rich work by people with very little name recognition. In fact, when you do the work of reading to find a home for your writing, you come to see a whole different America than the one plastered all over pop radio, TV and billboards, an America of intelligent, creative, and deeply caring people.

We write because it’s what our minds and hearts do, and to stifle the voice, to refuse to answer the call, is to be less than we were born to be. But the reason I send it out to find my tribe. There are quite a few excellent magazines that don’t yet realize I’m in their tribe, yet, like Ampersand Review, The Doctor J.T. Eckleberg Review, Atticus Review, Agni, and The Kenyon Review, all worth reading even though I’m not in them, I might (magnanimously) add.

To get published, you have to be like that black-capped chickadee outside my window at 4 a.m, calling and calling and calling, “as though eternity stretches out before you” to steal a line from Rilke.

I’m happy to report another story of mine has found a home. Check out “The Opal Maker” in The Collagist.

 

 

 

 

Is Magic Realism Really Fantasy?

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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.

And here’s another thing:

There is good literature, not so good literature, and total schlock. I’m not condemning any of it. They each have their place and purpose. But I think we can call things literary if they have more ideas per page, if they push deeper into the incomprehensible aspects of life, if they don’t offer easy answers, if they make us think and wonder, if they use language originally,and  if — when they have characters — the characters are real and complex. Keep in mind, though, that some forms of literature, like folktale, fables and allegory don’t have characters at all, but rather “figures.”The more a writer resorts to clichés and truisms, the less his or her fiction reflects the complexity, beauty and surprising contradictions of life. And this is what we mean when we say it is not literary.

Whether fiction is good literature or not has nothing to do with whether or not life is portrayed as “real” or “fantastical.” After all,  the tension between what is real and what is unreal is inherent in “real life.”  Good fantastical literature can be recognized by how well it employs that inherent tension.

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.

Pan’s Labyrinth. Dir. Guillermo del Toro. Perf. Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi López. Warner Brothers, 2006. Film.

Russell, Karen. Vampires in the Lemon Grove. New York: Knopf, 2013.

“Thursday, March 6, 2014.” The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. American Public Media, 6 March, 2014. Web. March 12, 2014.