Some of my favorite books are standards of magical realism and I especially enjoy the magical narrative elements. But, for narrative devices, some magic works better than other magic, and much of the supernatural in fiction isn’t the sort of magic I associate with magical realism – not just any magic will do. There’s something special about the magic in the best of magical realism – something…well…magical.
To clarify this idea, I collected some favorite magical elements in magical realism stories, intending to look for common characteristics. This list is terribly limited, of course, and subjective to boot, but it’s a beginning. I’m interested in others’ favorites too – please post comments below.
In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, José Arcadio II comes home after work, goes into his bedroom, closes the door, a gun goes off, and…
A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta’s chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread. “Holy Mother of God!” Úrsula shouted.
In Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate, heroine Tita despairs because her lover marries her sister, and worse, she’s responsible for much of the wedding preparation. Predictably, her tears fall into the ingredients while making the wedding cake, and…
When she finished beating the meringue, it occurred to Nancha to lick some of the icing off her finger to see if Tita’s tears had affected the flavor. No, the flavor did not seem to have been affected; yet without knowing why, Nancha was suddenly overcome with an intense longing.
Finally, in Linda Hogan’s short story, Descent (also her novel, Power), the one-legged old woman, Janie Soto, is so full of life…
…she has a wooden leg that is made of a tree that used to bloom I heard after she first started wearing the leg, it leafed out and blossomed.
Each of these depicts life force so intent it cannot be thwarted, though the rules of everyday experience must bend a little to allow it. By life force I mean the underlying stuff of life that is the font of creativity, love, all intense emotion. Substitute soul, spirit, vital energy, vitality, élan vital, if you prefer. Janie Soto is so full of life her wooden leg sprouts leaves. Tita De La Garza’s sorrow is so profound her tears infuse the wedding cake with inexorable longing…
The moment they took their first bite of the cake, everyone was flooded with a great wave of longing. Even Pedro, usually so proper, was having trouble holding back his tears. Mama Elena, who hadn’t shed a single tear over her husband’s death, was sobbing silently. But the weeping was just the first symptom of a strange intoxication-an acute attack of pain and frustration-that seized the guests and scattered them across the patio and the grounds and in the bathrooms, all of them wailing over lost love. Everyone there, every last person, fell under this spell, and not very many of them made it to the bathrooms in time those who didn’t joined the collective vomiting that was going on all over the patio. Only one person escaped: the cake had no effect on Tita. The minute she finished eating it, she left the party.
José Arcadio II is so full of vitality his blood flows from his dead ear all the way across town to inform Ursula of his demise. Judging from her reaction (“Holy Mother of God!”) Ursula understands how extraordinary is this event, but she treats it as a natural expression of the life-stuff that makes José Arcadio II the extraordinary man he is.
I didn’t present my last novel, Only Breath, as magical realism though (arguably) it fits Zoe Brooks’ definition: “Magical Realism is a literary genre that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” Instead, I called it a ghost story. The ghosts who haunt the pages of Only Breath are supernatural, extraordinary, otherworldly, and slip into what is otherwise realistic fiction without explanation, but they don’t seem magical to me in quite the right way for magical realism. In my opinion, the transition of the old man, Wesley Dubois, into a butterfly in Mikawadizi Storms better fits the bill. Wesley is so intent to engage the evil seeping from the depths of the open pit mine, he undergoes metamorphosis:
Orange and black butterflies began to swarm around him as Wesley moved through the woods, with each step more butterflies. Soon a cloud of butterflies the size of an open parachute followed him. He looked over his shoulders as he walked and laughed to see the orange cloud filled with flapping wings. As he approached Patriot mine, the thunderous noise grew louder and more menacing. A cold wind blew into his face, scattering the butterfly cloud for a moment but they quickly regrouped and moved forward behind the old man. Wesley lifted his arms and pointed his fingers straight out. His feet fell lightly on the ground. He turned his shoulders like an airplane banking and swooped to his right. His feet left the ground altogether. The swarm of butterflies grew thicker and larger. Flutter of a million wings filled the air with a feint hiss, which grew in volume as this orange cloud moved over the parking lot outside the main gate.
Wesley’s transition into a butterfly is the sort of magic I look for in magical realism, as are other magical elements in that novel – the whore house where residents age slowly, the mining engineer whose hands won’t stop growing, the explosion of darkness from the depths of an open-pit mine — so, I classified Mikawadizi Storms (and Zoe Brooks reviewed it) as magical realism. Though I often use magical elements to boost the intensity of the narrative in my writing, I’ve classified most of my other work differently – it’s just not the right sort of magic.