Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

B O O K   R E V I E W
If You Could Pick One Book . . .
a   s t u d e n t ' s   q u e s t    e n d s ,   t h e n   b e g i n s   a g a i n

BY TAMARA KAYE SELLMAN

MAGICAL REALIST FICTION
Edited by David Young and Keith Hollaman
520 pp
Oberlin College Press
$20.00

I HAVE been, for years now, looking for a collection of magical realist stories that best represents the varying scope of this form. What seemed to me to be a lack of resources for "exploring modern magical realism" was indeed the fuel for Margin's launch in 2000.

I knew of a periodical, appropriately entitled Magic Realism, published by Pyx Press, which seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth since around 1998. I occasionally field inquiries from visitors to Margin who are themselves looking for the same magazine. If anyone knows what happened to Magic Realism, please contact me.

So I had given up hope of ever finding housed in a single jacket any compilation of famous stories which might be used as a frame of reference or as a text for studying magical realism. Of course, my inquiry came at a time when, though I consider myself a lifelong student of literature, I was not (and still am not) studying at any university. It did not occur to me then that college reading lists might be one place to look for such fare.

Then Franz Wright came calling. Wright is a poet whose works had been cited in our reading list at Margin as prose, and he was asking if I could kindly move his listing to the appropriate category. Naturally I made the switch, and then he sent me a note telling me that, if I wished, he would send me a copy of an anthology of magical realist stories.

What? There existed such a book? "Please, send it along!" I'm sure my note to Wright was not nearly as enthusiastic online as I was feeling at that moment behind my desk.

When Magical Realist Fiction arrived, it took a while for me to get around to reading it. There were tasks at the website that were taking too much time, a virus had eaten my inbox, my own writing endeavors were calling to me at every free moment. Finally, at my favorite local bakery/coffeehouse, with my children safely ensconced in the arms of their cherished daycare provider, I peeled off the cellophane, turned open the cover and read.

It was only the introduction, but it was enough. Two hours at the Blackbird Bakery and my latté foam dissolved, my soup went cold, my oatmeal bread dried up while I feasted on eight pages of magical realism appreciation.

If you struggle with the idea of magical realist fiction being something other than Latin American stories, then you need to read this introduction. While editors Young and Hollaman spend a great deal of time discussing the markers which identify magical realism -- duality and juxtaposition, the collision of cultures, the questioning of mainstream assumptions, the requisite successful suspension of a reader's disbelief, the presence of the inexplicable -- they also question whether magical realism can ever be typified, or regionalized.

"The notion of the prototype is too restrictive," they write. Essentially, they tell the reader the possibilities are exponential depending upon what criteria you wish to apply to any number of stories. Some stories, they assert, will embrace all of the aforementioned markers, while others might only carry them delicately in their breast pockets.

While one might make this a case for waffling, I think the editors are dead on. (For more on this, read the January 2001 letter from the editor.)

To define the vision of the anthology, Young and Hollaman clearly state that "we have taken our term [magical realism] to imply a reaction to literary realism." That is not waffling, that is simply pointing out what many literary critics have concluded, that magical realism's goal is to provide an alternative to what seems to be the ruling literary vision (and perhaps it is a backlash against naturalist forms as well).

And then they move on to confirm my suspicions, that "There is no anthology currently on the market providing anything like a survey of this new heritage. This one at least provides a beginning."

Now, remember that this book was first published in 1984 -- something could have been written in the last 17 years. And perhaps there is another text out there, a grail of sorts, though what could compete with the lineup of stories in Magical Realist Fiction? They are modest in calling their collection "a beginning."

There are works from your standard and customary Latin American and South American contributors -- María Luisa Bombal, Octavio Paz, Julio Cortázar, Alejo Carpentier, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel García Márquez, to name a few -- 13 stories which should be read and reread for their stunning impact on the popularity of magical realism. For this, we must give credence, for without the fuel of El Boom and other Latin American and South American literary trends, all discussions of magical realism might never have evolved.

But consider this: of the 42 stories and excerpts in this anthology, 10 are written by authors from Russia and Eastern Europe. This shouldn't surprise any fan of magical realist extraordinaire Franz Kafka, but it might surprise the many readers who do not easily associate magical realism with writers from the northern hemisphere. (For stat heads: 12 stories in the anthology come from western Europe and another 6 from the U.S.)

Its global spectrum of talent clearly validates Magical Realist Fiction. Its story lineup alone drives the point home quietly -- that ownership of the magical realist story is not exclusive to any particular population.

And what a lineup! I had a thick dreamy smile on my face as I went down the list, recognizing so many works I'd read in college -- "The Nose," by Gogol; "The Porcelain Doll," by Tolstoy; "The Jolly Corner," by James; D.H. Lawrence's "Odour of Chrysanthemums"; works by Faulkner and Kafka.

I'd already read more than half of these stories without ever thinking for a moment that they were magical realism. But they are, every last one of them.

If I were to pick one typical story of magical realism from this compilation to recommend to the novice student, I would find the task impossible. All of these stories carry inside them some valid marker of magical realism. And all of these stories are classics.

But even better, this is an anthology meaning to be as inclusive as possible. For that its editors get my utmost respect. It truly is of no benefit to typify magical realism, in my opinion, it is only useful to expand, to explore, to reveal, and Young and Hollaman have succeeded with Magical Realism Fiction.

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Rev'd 2003/03/27