Plenty of writers and readers probably already know what the magical realism genre is. But plenty of you also probably do not. Since I borrow from magical realism stylistically and almost all of the time, I’ll take the time to explain.
The name itself is misleading. Oftentimes people assume that they do know what magical realism is: magic with elements of realism. In reality, the opposite is true. Magical realism is a realist story that happens to have elements of magic. By “realist,” this means no mention or definition of magic outright, a heavy ambiguity whether the narrative is truthful or not, and often an implication that the oddest events of the story are either misinterpretations, products of suspicion, or plain delusion. Magical realism is a bit like a story fell asleep and had a dream about itself.
By its nature, magical realism is a genre that very rarely takes point in a novel. The point of magical realism in a story is for the characters to ignore it–for it to be unnoticed. Finding a novel which made up only of magical realism is thus exceptionally difficult. Even the “purest” magical realism novel there is, “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez, frequently is billed as “post-colonial,” which it is. Lots of books with heavy magical realism are born in post-colonialism.
The genre itself first appeared on the coattails of modernism in Latin America, but has since given rise to authors like Haruki Murakami and Toni Morrison. Magical realism discusses themes of perception vs. reality, the power of belief, and the conflict of present self-determinism with restricting past circumstances (prominently political society or familial conflicts).
Often it juxtaposes a society’s “old” identity with an Americanized “new” identity, and may call upon the perspectives of characters who attest to folklore or some traditional belief–the fuku, for instance, in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” a curse which is said to haunt the family, or the insomnia in “100 Years of Solitude,” which everyone in the village manages to “catch” on the basis of village wives’ tales. It’s not uncommon for magical realism to encompass multiple generations of a family, or to be driven by the impact of a past generation on the current one.
This is perhaps why magical realism seems to have so much trouble gaining popular recognition. “You want me to just accept that scene? Why did that happen? How?” When I presented on this topic with a group in school, one very good sport dressed in a Dalmatian costume and cavorted around the room causing mischief while the class laughed and asked questions. We, the presenters, ignored him but for indifferent eye contact–behaving, in other words, as if disruptions in the “normal” world were still normal. People tend to snag on the abnormal, which is very much like the first-time reader’s magical realism experience.
Novels from this genre also may include wide casts of characters, given the generational aspect. “100 Years” names every generation of the Buendía family for 100 years after the same people. At one point there are seventeen Aurelianos running around at once. I kid you not. Granted, they act like one entity most of the time, but still. Just look at this family tree: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_Hundred_Years_of_Solitude#/media/File:One_Hundred_Years_Of_Solitude_Buendia’s_Family_Tree.svg
This might be why the magical realism label is so inaccessible to many. Most casual readers who pick up a magical realism book don’t really think they’re picking up a magical realism book. They just think they’ve picked up something weird, and maybe a little gross (the genre regularly unidealizes sex scenes in very discomforting ways). It’s hard to blame them. Here are some popular books which you may have not known were magical realism:
- “100 Years of Solitude,” Gabriel García Márquez
- “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Junot Díaz
- “The Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka
- “The Night Circus,” Erin Morgenstern
- “The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender,” Leslye Walton
- “The Tin Drum,” Gunther Grass
- “American Gods,” Neil Gaiman (author’s preferred text recommended)
- “Coraline,” Neil Gaiman (illustrator Dave McKean also illustrated “Varjak Paw!” Compare here.)
- “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” Lewis Carrol
Not all of these novels contain all elements of magical realism. “Alice in Wonderland,” for instance, has Alice fully acknowledge that everything around her is odd and wrong, which magical realism commonly does not. Yet it also never provides any explanation of a source for the bizarreness of Wonderland, like magic or hallucinogens. Wonderland just is. And then, when Alice wakes up at the end, we are left to wonder whether or not the experience happened at all.
If we were to magically realize “Lord of the Rings,” for example, we would keep the fantasy setting–magical realism in fantasy works so long as the “magical” pieces are contradictory to or unexplained the rules of your world’s “realism.” What we might do is take away the explicit magical properties of the One Ring. The story says that the people who hold it go mad from its influence, but maybe it’s just garden-variety greed. The readers will never know, because the narrative will never declare it one way or the other.
Frodo’s bouts of invisibility could stay, but the narrative might suggest his visions of Sauron’s eye are delusions of paranoia and guilt for holding the ring. His slow and gradual derangement could be by Sauron’s design–fate–but it could also be coming from the subconscious imprints left by the tales of his predecessors. The reader has to interpret for themselves. Are you starting to see what I’m getting at? Here are some other popular books for which the presence of magical realism might be argued.
- “Beloved,” Toni Morrison
- “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
- “Things Not Seen,” Andrew Clements
- “Dogeaters,” Jessica Hagedorn
All of the books I’ve listed are unique to each other. Many have different primary genres–contemporary, historical fiction, romance. But they all identify with certain branches of the magical realism classification system. I could spend hours drawing parallels between “100 Years of Solitude,” “The Tin Drum,” “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and “Dogeaters.”
Instead, though I’ll only stop to highlight the parallels between the undeniably magically realistic “Brief Wondrous Life” and the more generally surrealist “Dogeaters.” This should explain a little better what I mean about “elements” of magical realism.
“Brief Wondrous Life” and “Dogeaters” read very similarly. Both novels focus on diaspora, in the Dominican Republic and the Philippines respectively. “Brief Wondrous Life” uses the Trujillo regime as its focal point. “Dogeaters” uses a fictional counterpart to the Marcos regime. There is no antagonist to these novels other than a dictator we only meet face-to-face once or twice, his agents moving unnamed and frequently unacknowledged to silence discontent.
Both deal with the brutal objectification of women and forced machismo culture. Both also deal with inevitability, and an implied unseen force of fate somehow acting on its characters. The foreboding impression that the story is being recounted after it has already ended haunts the reader, along with prophetic dreams and unreliable narrators. Both could be considered post-colonial novels, where skin color and discomforting sex play huge roles.
Yet “Dogeaters” is not technically magical realism, even though it’s almost impossible not to read it that way. It does have its moments–the protagonist’s mother complaining about the Devil watching her give birth, or Baby Alacran (possibly) non-literally bathing in black pig’s blood. But the themes of gossip or tsismis, censorship, and media idealization that twist characters’ perception of story events are spot-on magical realism imitations–just without the magic.
Nowadays, I see more and more indie authors tagging themselves as magical realism writers. But there’s still a huge majority of people who have never even heard the title. Is the obscurity of magical realism a product of the genre’s own need for disguise? Does it lack presence in America because it lacks North American origins–or because it is regularly unflattering to America? Does it simply require too much time and patience for the average reader to unwind?
Hopefully, magical realism will come into the writing spotlight to stay sometime soon. I predict the genre will gain relevance in America as more American writers make the connection between unreliable narrators and reinvented realities with the “fake news” phenomena, and I will be very glad to see it.
If you have any questions about magical realism or the books listed, feel free to ask me or the helpful Wikipedia page here!