Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

I N T E R P R E T I V E   R E A D I N G
r e a d i n g   a n g e l a   c a r t e r ' s   W I S E   C H I L D R E N


P A R T   O N E
TWINS ARE difficult to avoid in Wise Children. Then again, I would hardly want to avoid such a diverse and engaging range of dualities presented by the plethora of pairs in this puckish prose. The very idea of such an absurd -- I might even say magical -- profusion of twins is somehow engaging, due to the kind of symmetrical pandemonium it implies, which is an interesting paradox in itself. The symmetry derives from the pairing off of so many characters, while the pandemonium emerges from the mistaken identities, the inversions and the turnabouts that ensue as the twins, and their metaphorical equivalents, grow more and more defined in the story. Certainly, the notions of duality and inversion carry some significance in regard to the carnivalesque elements of the novel. Similarly, an examination of a few Shakespearean works will uncover yet another literary lineage for the use of twins in creating chaotically comedic bedlam.

Before we discuss their significance, you may wish to peruse this INVENTORY OF TWINS in Wise Children -- be it as a refresher or as a brief orientation guide. If you aren't familiar with the book, you may even wish to print out the inventory for easy reference when reading about the various twins in the story.


The profusion of pairs allows the implied author to play with all manner of dualities. Hence, the comic and tragic faces of the theatre, represented in Peregrine and Mechior. The motif of the good and evil twin is common enough, but in this case, the author has added an engaging twist to the popular trope that allows it to evade being overfamiliar. The link between the two faces of theatre and the brothers is never explicitly brought up -- instead, it is reinforced without bashing the reader over the head with it. It is possible to read and enjoy the novel without ever making that connection -- as well as many others -- but making it adds a more playful side to the experience of the text.

With Dora and Nora, the notion of reflection is advanced. They are metaphorical mirror images, in the sense that they are inversions of each other. Just as when you look in the mirror and see the asymmetries in your face, these two live out those asymmetries as benign reflections of the other. (5)

As an additional duality, Saskia and Imogen serve as an inversion of the Lucky Chances themselves. They come into the world on the same day that Dora and Nora "become women" by having their first periods. Born to privilege and propriety, Saskia and Imogen are portrayed as unsympathetic and, in some cases, downright sinister. Saskia and Imogen cast their own mother out of her ancestral home, and it is Dora and Nora who take her in -- the Lucky Chances may be rough around the edges, promiscuous and foul-mouthed, but they are also big-hearted and tender. While Saskia and Imogen exemplify lovely, red-haired English Roses, Dora ruefully admits that, in their youth, she and Nora were "more coquette than finishing school. . . . Nymphettes, I suppose they'd call us now. Jail-bait" (70). Saskia and Dora have squared off against each other from the the time of Saskia's infancy, while Imogen's tendency towards dropping off to sleep under any circumstances contrasts with Nora's eager joie de vivre and her "passion to know about Life [with] all its dirty corners" (81).


If we were to begin with Dora, as she is the narrator and in that sense the focal point of the story, Nora would, in many ways, be her mirror image. As a pair, the Lucky Chances are also metaphorical mirror images of their cousins, Saskia and Imogen. Hopefully, the sense of the vividly postmodern hall of mirrors is beginning to emerge in your mind -- with an added twist as the magical mirrors whisk us away to a region on the very outside border of realism, even as they add depth to the motif of inversions and reflections that have been introduced. To reinforce this sense, add some funhouse -- one might even say carnivalesque -- distorted reflections of the central image of Dora in various media, from flesh through written fiction, to film, and hopefully the image of these reflective rooms will have solidified.

First, there's the scene in the enchanted wood, where art and life suddenly stare at each other, as Dora confronts her fiancé's ex-wife:

"I saw my double. I saw myself, me, in my Peaseblossom costume, large as life, like looking in a mirror.

"First off, I thought it was Nora, up to something, but it put its finger to its lips, to shush me, and I got a whiff of Mitsouko and then I saw it was a replica. A hand-made, custom-built replica, a wonder of the plastic surgeon's art . . . .

"And after all, she looked very lifelike, I must say, if not, when I looked more closely, not all that much like me, more like a blurred photocopy or an artist's impression. . . ." (155)

It turns out that in order to win Dora's fiancé (only ever known as "Genghis Khan") back to her side, said fiancé's ex-wife has transformed herself -- "she'd had her nose bobbed, her tits pruned, her bum elevated, she'd starved and grieved away her middle-age spread. She'd had her back molars out, giving the illusion of cheekbones. Her face was lifted up so far her ears had ended up on the top of her head but, happily, the wig hid them" (155) -- into an imperfect replica of Dora. Of course, the metaphorical implications of the two Doras meeting could not simply be direct correlation. Naturally, in the more obvious way, "art" has imitated "life" with the "artistic" resculpting of the ex-wife's appearence to imitate Dora's. But, at a deeper level, it is Dora who is the simulacrum, because she knows that her engagement is a sham -- she doesn't particularly care for her fiancé, while he proposed out of motives other than affection. Nonetheless, to the outside world, they are touted as a loving couple. Meanwhile, the ex-wife has never stopped loving Genghis Khan. In this sense, she is his real lover: "Before me stood the exed Mrs. Khan, who loved her man so much she was prepared to turn herself into a rough copy of his beloved for his sake" (155).


Irish, one of Dora's lovers, is of a literary persuasion. He finds that he is falling out of favour with her. He decides to work out his distress in prose -- a book called Hollywood Elegies, which went on to win its author a posthumous Pulitzer:

"I'm bound to say my best friend wouldn't recognise me in the far-from-loving portrait he'd penned after I'd gone. I'm the treacherous, lecherous chorus girl with her bright red lipstick that bleeds over everything, and her bright red fingernails and her scarlet heart, sexy, rapacious, deceitful. Vulgar as hell.. The grating Cockney accent. The opportunism. The chronic insensitivity to a poet's heart. And you couldn't trust her behind a closed door, either" (119-120). Of course, Dora has also candidly revealed that she was happily sleeping with her German teacher during the latter part of her affair with the doomed young writer. But, this is all about perspective -- while we are all well aware that Dora is far from perfect, we also know that she is not the sort of succubus that Hollywood Elegies would have her be. Later, a film is made of the novel, though Dora's ironic recollection is somewhat hazy in that regard: "I forget who it was played me. Some painted harlot" (154).

Even the so-called factual accounts of Dora in relation to Irish are distorted depictions: "I never rate more than a footnote in the biographies; they get my date of birth wrong, they mix me up with Nora, that sort of thing"(119).

It is also important to remember that any account -- even autobiography -- contains an aspect of fiction. The way that a person chooses to describe her actions in print creates an impression of the person for the reader to pick up on. It comes right down to the kinds of descriptors the writer uses -- an enemy might "hiss" out a warning, but the same warning, spoken in the same way by a friend might merely be "whispered." Such is also the case with the portrayal of the self in a text. So, in this sense, Dora has created an image of herself in text that is by turns bawdy, irreverent, tender, affectionate, kind and frank, but this might not be the Dora that everyone who knows her sees. Her story has the quality of complete honesty -- when she chooses to omit periods in her life, she comes clean about the omission, rather than trying to gloss it over. Nonetheless, it is still through her words and her perspective that all this is seen. Her readiness in admitting to the failings of her memory and to the occasional unreliability of her narration (more on that in . . . AND DUPLICITY) are a reminder that this is, after all, a personal account.

Given that it is clear that no one else sees Dora the way she sees herself -- her ex-lover sees her as a " 'gilded fly' " (152), while others see her as one half of the Lucky Chances and yet others see her, occasionally, as Nora -- we can also infer that her account of herself would be seen as fiction by some of the people who might proffer rather different accounts. And, of course, from the outside, she is fiction -- it is the implied author who has created Dora -- her narrative voice, her actions and all the events which she is recounting as memory. So, this particular sequence of mirrors is the most postmodern of all, since it begins with a distorted, fictionalized representation of Dora by a rancorous ex-lover, which is then described in a biographical portrayal of Dora, by herself -- and the latter depiction of Dora is itself a fiction, which has even less of a direct correlation to reality than the image in Hollywood Elegies. Postmodern works will often draw attention to themselves as artifacts, just as Wise Children, in this way -- among others -- draws attention to itself as fiction by reflecting that fictitiousness within the fiction of itself.

There are other interesting, postmodern aspects to the profusion of twins in Wise Children. For instance, the chances of there being such a plethora of twins in one family are pretty low -- particularly given that they are linked by fathers rather than mothers. By stretching credibility to the point where the reader is on the verge of crying "No way! Totally unrealistic!", a construction like this in a fictional text draws attention to an essential component in the process of reading fiction: the willing suspension of disbelief. In this way, the very set up of the relationships in the book -- a fundamental aspect of the text -- draws attention to itself as fiction.

And now, we move on to the second part of DUALITIES, . . . AND DUPLICITY, in which we will examine the various narrative hijinks that have been undertaken in Wise Children

PART 3 ~ LIFE AS A CARNIVAL -- Manifestations of the carnivalesque

PART 4 ~ ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE -- Shakespeare is inevitable in this book, and the allusions explicated here are only a sampling



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Rev'd 2003/03/27