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.”
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.
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.