Friday, May 13, 2016

Magical Realism: a (Theoretically) Love/(Actually) Hate Thing

magical realism

Let's talk about magical realism. How familiar are you with this genre? Very? A little? Not at all?

In case you've never heard of it, here's the Wikipedia definition (which, as we all know, is the definitive source of wisdom): "Literature, painting, and film that, while encompassing a range of subtly different concepts, share in common an acceptance of magic in the rational world."

Okay, so, like that definition admits, magical realism can look like a lot of different things. But, in general, what I understand magical realism to be is a book (art, film, whatever) that is set in what feels like our current, rational, non-magic world until all the sudden something "magical" (irrational, unexplained, etc.) happens, and everyone just kind of goes with it like it's no big deal. No one is really put out that irrational things are happening, even if they admit they are irrational.

On the surface, I love this concept. I love the possibility of it. I love the freedom it gives to the wideness of human experience. I love that it allows for an exploration of life beyond the rational and mundane. It feels like the kind of definition of life that I believe in, that not everything is explainable by rational processes and rules, that there is space for things that we are just not capable of explaining, but it's okay. So, when I talk about it theoretically, I'm all on board with magical realism.

magical realism

But then, when I actually read these books, I STRUGGLE! Hate is probably too strong a word, but I have yet to fully enjoy a magical realist book.

Example 1: I started One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez because it was everywhere. Everyone was raving about it and talking about how incredible Marquez was. And I made a good faith effort. I would say I got about 100 pages in before finally giving up. I just could not understand this book. It was not for me.

Example 2: The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende. I actually finished this one because I read it for a book club, and it was fine, but I just couldn't bring myself to emotionally care. I remember at the book club I just kept asking, "Okay, but why was her hair green? Why did it have to be green? What was the significance of the green hair?" and everybody else there was just like, magical realism, get over it. But I couldn't get over it. Why was her hair green?

Example 3: Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin. I made an even better faith effort with this one. I made it through more than half the book, maybe even three-fourths of the way through. But then, when the due date came up at the library I returned it, and realized that I just didn't care enough to check it out again. I don't know, maybe some of the more fantastical stuff was going to finally be explained at the end, maybe there were other things that bothered me (like the multiple points of view and how it felt like it was taking far too long to tie them all together), I just didn't care to find out.

Example 4: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, which I just finished last month, and which got me thinking about this genre and inspired this post. Because I actually did care enough to finish this one, but I also felt cheated in a way. I felt like the magical realist elements almost took away from the reality of the serious issues being explored, like it would've been more powerful or more believable had the magical realist elements not been there.

magical realism

When I'm reading these books, I find this inner monologue going on in my head that mostly consists of "Why is this happening? What are the rules here? Why aren't any of the characters trying to figure out what is going on?"

And this is where I disappoint myself. Why do there have to be rules? Why does it have to make sense? I don't know, but I guess this is a truth about myself and my fiction: I need these worlds to make sense. I need there to be rules to the magic. I'm completely fine with magic and fantasy (I LOVE magic and fantasy) as long as it is consistent with the way the rest of the world works in the book. Apparently, I need order and explanation, not necessarily spelled out in the book--it's fine if the characters don't fully understand everything, as long as there are hints that everything is ultimately understandable. I just really want an underlying system. Does this say something about me as a person? Probably, but let's not read too deep into it.

I'm sure I will try my hand again at this genre (these books sound so appealing beforehand), but I have yet to feel comfortable with it. I'd love to hear, how do you feel about magical realism? Do you enjoy it? Find it super weird? Never touched it?

*Click images for image source


  1. I'm glad you wrote this post. In general, I like magical realism done well. (Totally subjective, of course! HA!) I think the mystery is part of the appeal for me--trying to figure out how much of the story is unreliable narrator/speaking in allegories, and how much is "truth"/magical.

    They often leave me with a lot of questions, but I think the bewilderment is partly the point--kind of the "What in the world just happened here?" reaction that you would feel if this stuff did happen in real life. With that, they are extra fun to discuss with other people, because you can debate about what was real in the plot or imagined or truly magical, or whatever.

    I find that I do like it better when the characters at least acknowledge the weirdness--because it wouldn't really be the rational world that we know if everybody just took it as a matter of course the first time something magical happened. I tend to like them more when the magical elements are limited, as well.

    Anyway, I'll be interested to see what you think if you read any more! I really liked "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey.

    1. Okay, your description here is exactly the kind of experience I keep expecting to have with magical realism, you make it sound so intriguing. Maybe I just need to find the right book. I will definitely be checking out The Snow Child at some point. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. I also enjoyed The Snow Child. I also liked The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, so maybe give those a try.