Margin: Exploring 

Modern Magical 


One attempt to typify the magical realist story

b y   t a m a r a   k a y e   s e l l m a n   ~   m a r g i n

I RECENTLY met with my Managing Editor, Susan, up in Vancouver BC, which may not seem remarkable at all except that I live in Seattle and she, in Toronto. So Real-Time-Live editorial meetings between us are rare whirlwind occasions brimming with creative energy and good humor. Not only that, but they become a good excuse to grab a mini-vacation, which we did, taking the SkyTrain into the city and ending up along the blossoming Stanley Park in mid-spring.

Pacific Northwest weather being what it is, we managed to stay dry enough through most of the hike through the park and the city, but at one point, a downpour sent us into a cozy corner coffeehouse overlooking the water. After squeezing the water from our hair and wrapping our hands around hot beverages, we managed to toss around the idea that magical realist stories could be categorized by bona fide types.

It makes sense, if one considers that many of these stories ultimately seek to concretely convey profound cultural abstractions such as miracles, metamorphoses and curses. These are archetypal stories.

I've included the fruit of that friendly day-trip in the worksheet below. If you write or study magical realism, this discussion is meant to help you better understand the structure and narrative goal of magical realism. Each "type" is followed by a popular title and a link to a corresponding story within MARGIN (when possible). We've also cited other literary works and films in the comments following the links. As always, we're happy to entertain discussion about this list, and welcome your suggestions.

But please understand, neither Susan or I actually believe that magical realism can be reined in all that easily. Rather, trying to typify magical realism is a bit like trying to lasso a cloud. Cinching the rope tight only results in smaller clouds being formed. The exercise, repeated again and again, ends up being a bit specious after a while--one will never be able to corral all the lassoed clouds into tidy herds, much less brand them consistently. Look at the remarkable differences between the the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Angela Carter and José Saramago--three literary giants who couldn't be less alike, once stripped of their common realm as magical realists.

But one could still try to rein in the narrative forms of magical realism on a theoretical level. So we've tried, though we'd also add the caveat that some stories of magical realism may still assume the qualities of more than one archetype, despite our best efforts to render them distinct.

So join Susan and me, if you will, for a ride along the range of imagination and possibility. Sure, there'll be some clouds of dust kicked up by these definitions that you may need to gallop into...but what price, adventure? Enjoy the trip.--Tamara Kaye Sellman, Editor

METAMORPHOSES: stories of revelation through remarkable change
Metamorphosis || Franz Kafka
The Mapmaker || Brandi Bauer

These stories highlight, obviously, the radical physical alteration of a main character or an object within his or her possession. The satirical movie, How to Get Ahead In Advertising, bears great metamorphic elements. A corporate ad exec burns out while trying to write a pitch for a new acne medication; when a horrible boil develops on his neck, the irony of his decision to quit his job takes over in ways unexpected. Stories of Metamorphosis usually have a strong political undertone to them; the change which is the central axis of the story resides as a commentary about the larger world.

MIRACLES: stories courting the unbelievable truth
One Hundred Years of Solitude || Gabriel García Márquez
The Woman Who Swallowed The Book of Kells || Ian Wild

What is a miracle, but something that happens that nobody can believe but has to, because it really did happen? All societies have miracle stories; most holy books rely on them to tell the truth. But miracle stories don't all have to be morally based. The discovery of ice in Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude lent miraculous tones to an epic tale steeped in political and familial power shifts. For a funny film parodying the Catholic Miracle story, check out Picking Up The Pieces with Woody Allen, David Schwimmer, Sharon Stone and Cheech Marin.

SIGHTINGS stories juxtaposing magic entities in a real landscape
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings || Gabriel García Márquez
The Mermaid of Orchard Beach || Janice Eidus

Okay, so we get lots of stories where people meet the Virgin Mary on a Greyhound bus, or a waitress serves Elvis a bacon and peanut butter sandwich in the 21st Century. (And if you're wondering, we've seen enough of these at MARGIN and don't care to see any more.) But stories of Sightings, in and of themselves, can be wondrous events. And they don't have to be sightings of famous people or religious icons. What about Bigfoot in a Safeway parking lot eating from a carton of deli fried rice? Check out Sondra Kelly-Green's incarnation of Amelia Earhart at MARGIN: "Crashing".

ÜBERHUMANS stories of ordinary people with extraordinary features
Geek Love || Katherine Dunn
The Remains of Princess Kaiulani's Garden || Katherine Vaz

These are not the stories of superheroes, at least not in the technical sense. When science or technology enters into this realm, what you have is more closely aligned with science fiction. The lives of Überhumans are changed by powers beyond their control, and often at their own expense. Imagine the child who sneezes every time she hears a lie ("The Scent of a Lie," by Paolo da Costa), or Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus: the narrator, Fevvers, is born with wings, making her simultaneously a freak and a wonder. It is in part a blessing, but also a curse for her--something that marginalizes her and cannot be hidden.

INTERSECTIONS stories of interactions with the "other side"
Beloved || Toni Morrison
Field || Anne Spollen

The Twilight Zone is famous for capturing the notion of the "other side," but it's not the only example. Twin Peaks also entertained otherworldly crossroads in the form of Agent Cooper's transcendent dreams. Sometimes, intersection stories are about hauntings, about walking into hot spots. W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe (and its companion film, Field of Dreams) is a kind of lengthened dwelling at the Intersection. Also, think of the overarching intersections in "Being John Malkovich," where the main character is repeatedly jettisoned onto the Jersey turnpike after taking up repeated residencies in John Malkovich's head.

THE SECRET LIVES OF OBJECTS stories of the animation of the inanimate
The Aleph || Jorge Luis Borges
Mother Machine || Mary Overton

These stories account for ordinary objects taking on a curious life all their own. Günter Grass's The Tin Drum is a hallmark tale revealing the secret life of a toy during WWII. John Steinbeck's lesser-known To A God Unknown includes a large black rock that has the power to assign or take away life. Caribbean magical realism is resplendent with these Object tales: Trinidadian writer Marina Ama Omowale Maxwell's story, "Devil Beads," refers as much to the magical return of the diaspora of the islands as it does to the main character finding her head threaded with rainbow beads upon awakening.

SHAPECHANGERS stories of living among morphing beings
Axolotl || Julio Cortázar
Without Wings || Lia Scott Price

This is the realm of the lycanthrope--the werewolf come to life at midnight. Shapechanger stories tiptoe along the edges of horror, though; they don't usually have horrible, bloody, death-filled endings. Rather, they spend their time trying to give a human face to the dark side. Sometimes that dark side is not a creature spawned from hell, but an animal spirit existing to haunt the guilty, or a person of questionable trust walking into your town. Marcia Douglas writes of a kin-owl in her story, "What The Periwinkle Remember," in reference to certain folk who remove their skins in order to assume their other shapes.

THE VIEW FROM THE OUTSIDE stories told from the margins of society
The Bone People || Keri Hulme
Tierra y Libertad || Carol Zapata-Whelan

Stories told from the outside are commonly discussed in dialogs about postcolonialism, but it's not fair to limit The View From The Outside simply to issues of race or politics. Anyone suffering in exile (including economic, social, and personal exiles) knows well this view. Patrick Chamoiseau's Texaco chronicles colonialism and modernization in French Martinique through the story of industry, first in sugar plantations, then in oil refineries. In Lianne Mercer's story, "For Sale," an outsider's view of mainstream American consumers is conveyed through the work of a woman who cooks and sells words at the marketplace.

LABYRINTHS stories that restructure time, setting, space
The Unconsoled || Kazuo Ishiguro
The Death of Borges (and the Death of Borges) || Dennis Vannatta

This is definitely Borges territory. His "Garden of the Forking Paths" should be required reading for anyone who wants to master a narrative puzzle without fully landing in the realm of science fiction. In the film, Sliding Doors, a woman's fate is determined by her decision to get off the train at a certain place and at a certain time, all based upon a moment's inspiration as the doors part. There's also Bill Murray's lost character in Groundhog Day--an arrogant journalist stuck in a repetitive time labyrinth he can't hope to escape unless he solves the emotional puzzle within himself.

CURSES stories of accepted superstition
Major Aranda’s Hand || Alfonso Reyes
The Lingering Death of Eamon Patterson || Peter Damian Bellis

Who doesn't love a good curse story? They run rampant throughout the world, existing mostly to give voice to human fears about inadequacy within a moral realm. Curse stories often employ people with spiritual connections, like seers, padres, curandeiras, and witches. Curses are predominant in writing from communities where the rift between superstition and organized religion can be illustrated well. Stephen King's Thinner makes for a gripping curse story: a man kills a gypsy woman and gets off scot free, but the woman's father puts a curse on him. Curse stories often make popular movies. Think of Tom Hanks' Big. Louis Sachar's award-winning book Holes traces the shape of a long-time family curse through its narrative, and was captured well in Disney's film adaptation in the Spring of 2003.

DOPPELGÄNGERS stories symbolizing manifestations of the Self
Green Music || Ursula Pflug
Obsidian || Susan San Miguel

A dopplegänger is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "a ghostly double of a living person..." In the series, Northern Exposure, Shelly Tambo-Vincouer visits the laundromat the morning before she gives birth to her daughter; the young woman she meets at the laundromat is doubtless her daughter in fifteen years. Also, consider Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," in which a young woman deemed fragile by her family is shut inside an attic room decorated with a garish wallpaper pattern. After a time, the woman recognizes that the being who lives behind the swirls in the wall is really her own feral self emerging.

CONTEMPORARY HYBRIDS of tall tales, allegories, fairy tales, myths, parables, urban legends
The Alchemist || Paulo Coelho ~ modern parable
Boiled Him || Normandi Ellis ~ contemporized Baba Yaga tale

Any time you take an ages-old story form and retell it using contemporary structures, characters and settings, you open yourself up to the opportunity to create magical realism. Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale fits the tableau, as does Kathy Acker's Don Quixote: Which Was A Dream, The Marriage of Sticks by Jonathan Carroll. Matt Clark's Hook Man Speaks contemporizes the famous urban legend of The Hook. Great films abound in this category as well, including Joe V. The Volcano, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story.

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