Exploring Modern Magical Realism

Mormon magic realism?

b y   w i l l i a m   m o r r i s
a   m o t l e y   v i s i o n

Part One

DAMON LINKER'S post over at Times & Seasons on PoMo Mormon Enchantment has drawn a lot of great comments including one by Rob on the possibility of Mormon literature written in the magic realist mode. This idea of magic realism being a natural mode of literature for Mormonism comes up from time to time. The appeal as I understand it is that because magic realism was pioneered by South American Catholic (believing or not) writers as a mode of literature and features seemingly supernatural ("magic") actions or beings embedded in a realist narrative, it would seem to be a good fit for Mormon writers. After all, like Catholics, we believe in an "enchanted" world—to borrow the term from Linker.

I see a couple of complications.

First: As is their wont, literary critics have stretched and strained and misapplied and muddied the definition of magic realism to a point where one wonders how useful it is. At its most reductive level, any narrative written after, say, 1950 that seems to be "literary" fiction but contains fantastical elements is hit with the magic realism label.

For example, Eugene England says about Orson Scott Card's work [and I think he has specifically in mind Card's excellent Alvin Maker series] that it is "what might be called, on the model of Latin American novelists, magic realism." (Eugene England. "Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects." See paragraph 54.). Yes, England throws in the qualifier "might," but from my point of view Card is clearly writing in the speculative fiction modes of fantasy (Alvin Maker, Saints) and science fiction (Ender, etc.). What he is doing is quite different from the Latin American novelists.

Second: As Clark Goble points out in a response to an earlier post by Linker on enchantment, Mormonism's "enchantment is a double move in which the enchantment is naturalized and made 'normal.'" Granted this was in a philosophical context, but I think it has a literary application as well. Insofar as Mormon magic realism manifests itself in narratives where the "magical" elements are actually natural or 'normal' (albeit perhaps not entirely common) Mormon phenomena (such as speaking in tongues, angelic appearances, healings, etc.), it is no longer, in my opinion, magic realism. And yet in my experience, when Mormons talk about a Mormon magic realism, these are the phenomena they give as examples. See Rob's comments linked to above, for instance, where he mentions the Three Nephites and baby resurrections.

This is not to say that such a mode of literature wouldn't be good for the field of Mormon literature. In fact, I would love to see more natural-supernatural acts occur in Mormon fiction. But such literature does create a weird situation where non-believers would read it as magic realist [although I have my doubts about whether many would be charitable enough to group it in that category—instead I think it would be received as Mormon propaganda] and Mormons would read it as, well, realist.

NEXT: I'll explore this topic further in a couple of days by taking a close look at two short stories that are examples of magic realism—"A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" by Latin American writer and the godfather of magic realism Gabriel García Márquez and "The Last Nephite" by Mormon author Neal Chandler.

s e e   c o m m e n t s

Part Two

IN PART I of my discussion of the possibilities of magic realism as a fruitful mode for Mormon fiction writers, I brought up two complications that, at least for me, muddied the project. First, the fuzziness of the label "magic realism," especially when transferred from the group of Latin American writers and particular mid-20th century works that led to initial category to other literatures. Second, the problem of the "naturalness" of the Mormon events/actions/figures that are often mentioned as possible sources of "magic"—the Three Nephites et al.

To restate the second point a bit: I think part of the enthusiasm among Mormon literary types for the category of magic realism is that it seems to be a way to create narratives where Mormon beliefs—both religious and folk—are treated seriously. Not only would/do such narratives reflect the Mormon experience in a 'good' way, they also then fit into a category that is treated seriously by the literary world.

In part I, I question whether or not such narratives would be accepted as magic realist narratives. I suppose at this point I should dig into the literary criticism—discuss how the term is defined and applied. I have read a little of it in the past—enough to know that it is a term in contention and that its definition as a literary mode really depends on what texts a particular critic is into.

So my preference is to ground this discussion in texts—starting with Gabriel García Márquez's often anthologized and taught "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings." It leads to a very different definition or view of magic realism, but I will bring the discussion back around to Mormon literature by comparing it [I am a comparatist by training, after all] to Neal Chandler's story "The Last Nephite."

"A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" is about exactly what the title suggests. An old man with wings shows up one day in the muddy courtyard of a poor Catholic family in a small Latin American coastal town. No one is sure what to make of him. He doesn't seem like a real angel. In addition to his wings, the only other remarkable thing about him is that he speaks a language no one else can understand. He experiences some moments of renown brought on by curiosity and the possibility of miraculous healings (miracles do happen, but in a grotesquely funny manner)—and the family gets rich charging money to see him. The local priest tries to get a statement from Rome on the nature of the old man, but that gets tied up in esoteric debates. Finally, a new freak arrives in town and the old man is forgotten, left to languish in a dirty, decrepit chicken coop, his wings reduced to cannulae. The old man survives a winter with the family, re-grows his wings, and one day in early spring flies away.

Although no exact location or time period is given, the narrative seems to be located in historical time. That "magic" element in the narrative is the presence of the old man. But he is a baffling presence. The magic is not, for example, an appearance by the Blessed Virgin or an exorcism or something else rooted within the supernatural possibilities allowed by Catholic doctrine (even folk doctrine). In fact, the old man presents a problem for the Church—a subject for doctrinal debate rather than a wonderful manifestation of the power of God to be sanctioned and publicized.

This type of magic realism where the magical element is a baffling one poses a challenge for the category of Mormon magic realism—a challenge that is illustrated by Neal Chandler's "The Last Nephite."

Part Three

IN PART II, I discussed the magic realism of García Márquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," noting that the supernatural element of story—the old man with wings—was a baffling presence that challenged the religious conventions of the community he appears in. Neal Chandler's "The Third Nephite," which appears in his loosely-connected collection, Benediction, also features a supernatural old man that poses a problem for the realistic characters and world of the narrative.

In the story a middle-aged father comes into contact with a mysterious old man who asks for his help. The father decides to give him aid and ends up in a series of situations that culminates in the two being taken by LDS security men to visit a general authority who tries to council (and threaten somewhat) the old man into following Church protocol more closely. It would seem that this old man has been driving the Church bureaucracy crazy by running around doing charitable acts that are rather unorthodox and perhaps more importantly in doing so he subverts the wishes and boundaries of local authorities. Although Chandler leaves room for some doubt on the matter, it seems pretty clear that this old man is what the title of the story suggests—one of the Three Nephites, the three apostles who in 3 Nephi ask Christ that he allow them the same status that he gave to John the Beloved, namely, to not die, but instead be transformed into a state that would allow them to remain on earth until his Second Coming.

There is a rich body of Mormon folk narratives dealing with the Three Nephites. Chandler is clearly evoking these narratives. And by locating the story in a "realistic" seemingly historical-bound time and setting, he creates a narrative that seems to be in the magic realist mode—especially considering how well it parallels García Márquez's story.

There are some important differences between these two baffling old men, however, and herein lies, I think, part of the challenge for Mormon magic realism that draws upon religious-folk beliefs for its magical elements.

Both old men present challenges to orthodox doctrine, but in García Márquez the challenge is one of definition of being, whereas, in Chandler it is one of conduct. The Catholic authorities get caught up in an unresolved debate about the nature of this old man with wings—and the nature of his being is not solved for the reader either. With Chandler, the being of the old man seems rather clear. Although we don't receive a 100 percent confirmation, I think most readers would agree that the old man is most definitely meant to be one of the Three Nephites. The problem is not what is he, but is he behaving appropriately?

I like Chandler's story very much, but I think that it is weak as an example of magic realism because the magic realist element is used in the service of counter-discourse—or to put it in harsher terms—as a teaching tool. The old man with wings represents a puzzle; the old Nephite is used to show how Church hierarchy and bureaucracy can interfere with "pure" Christian acts (in fact, this is one of the main themes of Benediction).

The problem for many (orthodox—although I'm not sure I like the term applied to this situation) Mormon readers, I think, is that they just don't think that one of the Three Nephites (the last one even?) would come into conflict with Church leaders. What's more is that he doesn't seem entirely recognizable when removed from the folk narratives associated with the Three Nephites. I think that this is especially true because even though his charitable acts are mentioned, they aren't depicted. Perhaps if these had been dramatized the "magic realistic" feel of the character would have been heightened and made more believable.

And this problem illustrates a major challenge for Mormon magic realism, I think. Although Mormonism has a great foundation of folk narratives, it also has some clear doctrinal boundaries and lines of authority.

One solution for Mormon writers might be to follow García Márquez's lead and introduce elements that are baffling for Mormon readers (i.e. not accounted for by doctrine).

Another is to not worry about the category so much and focus on how to powerfully portray those Mormon experiences that are not "supernatural" but are not explainable by modern science. Those things—healings, warnings, appearances, speaking in tongues and other manifestations of spiritual gifts—that are common and uncommon. I'm not sure how non-Mormon audiences will react to such narratives (although in part I, I assume that they will react negatively—if at all). And considering the discomfort much of the Mormon audience has with artistic depictions of sacred moments, perhaps the audience for these narratives is so small as to almost not be worth bothering with. And yet, this is an important part of the Mormon experience—this magic we see in the world, magic that is natural to us, unseen but true and living.

NEXT: I'm ready to move on to other subjects so it won't be for awhile, but I intend to follow-up on Andrew Hall's comments and take a look at magic realism in Margaret Young's novel Salvador. I also will try and track down an essay by Eric A. Eliason that discusses magic realism in a story collection by Phyllis Barber.

s e e   c o m m e n t s

Part Four

TOO LAZY to dig into the literary criticism on the genre, but curious about what the surface-level academic view of magic realism is, I decided to turn to The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism. The listing for "Magic Realism" referred me to the entry on "Realism."

After a brief discussion of "Realism" and its major permutations (naturalism, socialist realism), the entry includes one paragraph on "Magic Realism":

"Another term that has been used in conjunction
with discussions of realism is magic realism. Applied
to a group of writers that include Latin American
authors Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García
Márquez, as well as German Günter Grass and
Englishman John Fowles, magic realism describes
the technique of combining realistic depictions of
events and characters with elements of the
FANTASTIC, often drawn from dreams, myth, and
fairy tales."
—("Realism." The Columbia Dictionary of
Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism. Pages 255-57.
Edited by Joseph Childers and Gary Hentzi. Columbia
University Press: New York, 1995.)

Not much help. But it's a good reminder that although the definition can perhaps be broadened a bit more than how I've been portraying, don't forget the "realism" part of magic realism. Works that include fantastic elements but don't really fit into the realist tradition aren't magic realist works.

Which is why I am surprised that Borges is included in the list above. I haven't read his later novels so perhaps that qualifies him for the appellation, but I don't see his stories as fitting into realism. Do we call Kafka a magic realist? Maybe, but I've never seen the two linked. The world(s) of some of Kafka's stories have certain resemblances with the "real" world, but they aren't "realistic" in the same sense as Balzac's Paris or Henry James' Boston. This is not to say that neither Borges nor Kafka fits into the "literary" literary tradition—although that's a whole other discussion (that is, why do certain works of "fantasy" become canonized and others don't). Nor do I think that "magic realism" has to be set in a real-world place and time. García Márquez's works invoke (recreate?) the real world, but are often hazy on the time and place. But they do it in a way that's much different than Kafka in "The Trial" or "The Castle" (actually, now that I think about it, "Metamorphosis" might be the one Kafka story that comes close to magic realism).

I balk at Borges' inclusion in the same way that I balked at Eugene England including Orson Scott Card in his comments on Mormon magic realism. It seems to me that OSC is clearly writing in the traditions of speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror) and historical fiction. In fact, he made a conscious turn away from literary fiction. Sure, those are marketing categories decide by publishers, but those categories also affect, in turn, how his books are read and interpreted and what works they are compared with—the tradition they are tied in to. And once an author becomes part of that market, he or she is constrained (and liberated) to a certain extent by the demands of that market.

My guess is that Borges is included simply because he's a canonical, Latin American writer who works are often fantastic.

But to get back to my original point: let's not forget the "realism" aspect of magic realism. It's a crucial part of the reading experience, of why and how the fantastic elements operate in the way they do for the reader (and thus the problem of Mormon readers I bring up in parts I-III). This is why it'll be interesting to take a look at Margaret Young's Salvador. From what I understand, she works in the realist tradition.

NOTE: In stressing the link to realism, I in no way intend to discount works that fall more into the fantasy tradition than the realist tradition. In fact, if anything, this discussion on magic realism proves that literary criticism has not dealt satisfactorily with fantasy and fantastic elements in literary fiction. Not to mention the fact that it has paid but meager attention to genre fiction (although that has begun to change).

ALSO: If you missed it, check out The Semiotician's comments on Mormon magic realism at the end of part III. He summarizes well what I've been trying to say about the problems Mormon readers create for a "true" Mormon magic realism.

s e e   c o m m e n t s

Editor's Note: The Association for Mormon Letters honored A Motley Vision with its 2005 Award for Criticism at its annual meeting held Feb. 23, 2006.

William Morris lives in Oakland, CA, with his wife and daughter. He is a Web editor, Elder's Quorum instructor*, casual carpool rider, fair weather Giants fan and champion binky wrangler. He considers himself a "gentleman scholar," which means that he's too proud of his degrees in English lit and comparative lit to label himself an amateur and too lazy and unfocused to pursue a career in academia. He promises to return the work that inspired the title of this blog as soon as he finishes that one essay he's trying to write.

*"After an eight year run (including three different wards), my luck ran out (or rather, I was granted an opportunity to dedicate more of time to the Lord). I'm now a member of the EQ presidency. And I'm still working on that essay. The first draft is finally finished."



margin home | contents | links | reading list | marginalia | contributors | staff | guidelines | kudos | subscriptions | contact us

Want to know about UPDATES and NEW ADDITIONS to MARGIN?
Try our - S P A M L E S S - opt-in subscription
It's absolutely free!

Layout, design & revisions © Tamara Kaye Sellman, Webmaster
Active home URL:
(also: html)


TERMS OF USE: This site contains copyrighted materials, including but not limited to text and graphics. You may not use, copy, publish, upload, download, post to a bulletin board, include in any weblog or otherwise transmit, distribute or modify any elements of this site in any way, except that you may download one copy of such contents on any single computer for your own personal, non-commercial use, provided you do not alter or remove any copyright, author attribution or other proprietary notices.

Press Kit entrance
Rev'd 2006/06/09