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   T W O
…And Duplicity

"The truest poetry is the most feigning."
~ Touchstone, As You Like It, Act III, Scene III

SO, THE profusion of twins in Wise Children verges on the unbelievable, threatening to undercut our sense of the suspension of disbelief. In other words, just as the presence of a distorted fiction within a fictional work draws attention to the enframing narrative's own fictionality, so too does the set up of the relationships in the book. There are other aspects of the text that also serve as reminders of the process of the "willing suspension of disbelief" that is involved -- all subtle. For instance, there's a scene at a cast party when a character sings "Paper Moon," pointing out that set pieces, like paper moons and cardboard seas, are not make believe "'if you believe in me'" (157). Dora could be telling us exactly the same thing. As could the implied author herself, hidden in Dora's voice.

These sorts of references, to the artistry of art within the fiction are also self-referential. The verisimilitude that is so convincing in Wise Children is, after all, a semblance of reality -- a cunning impersonation, or a thoroughly convincing paper moon -- rather than the reality itself. The various references to Melchior's "'cardboard crown, with the gold paint peeling off'" (what Dora calls "a flimsy bit of make-believe") (105), Perry's magic tricks and all the behind-the-scene mechanics of set design and visual effects that are involved in creating a convincing drama -- all these are references to the fact that fiction is a wonder because of its vivid evocation of reality, rather than because it is actually real.

Dora, much as I might love her, is one of the many engaging, charming and unreliable narrators you'll encounter during your readings. She's intelligent and articulate, but she's telling her story from memory. Her recollections are often distant ones, at that, and she's the first to remind you that memory is fallible -- if you're listening closely enough to hear. Again and again, she says things like: "I have a memory, though I know it cannot be a true one..." (72), "I could have sworn that..." (217), "these days, half a century and more later, I might think I did not live but dreamed that night..." (158) and "I misremember. It was sixty-odd years ago you know" (68). All these disclaimers are close to throwaway lines, set, as they are, amid descriptions so vivid that the sense of immediacy is difficult to avoid. Dora invokes the names of perfumes your mother might have worn, quotes songs your grandmother may have sung to you and depicts events that are so engaging that the temptation to accept them at face value is difficult to resist.

Yet, if that is so, why break the spell? Why remind us that these may not even be accurate recollections on the part of a narrator who is, after all, fictional herself?

The moments of unreliability serve a wonderful dual purpose. On the one hand, the concession that memory is fallible is realistic -- more realistic than those first-person narratives where the tellers recall exact dialogue from twenty years past, when you know perfectly well that you cannot recount, word-for-word, what that speaker said at the motivational seminar last week (that's why she gave handouts). Yet, the convention of filmic accuracy in first-person narration is so well established that we rarely question the seamlessness of the narrative. On the other hand, when a first-person narrator claims that she doesn't quite remember what happened, then launches into an unlikely version of events, she begs you to ask yourself what might have really happened. When she reminds you that all these events took place many years ago, so she might not remember all the details accurately, she raises the question: how many of those things she presented as fact does she remember accurately? And that, in turn, returns you to the fact that, unless the implied author has given you some very clear hints about what might indeed have actually taken place, you have no way of guessing because, doggone it, it's fiction. Nothing really happened -- it's just a story!

So, at that point in the reasoning, the second purpose emerges as it becomes clear that these sorts of confessions on the part of the narrator play the same role as the reminders of fictionality and the stretches in credibility; they are like a brief wink at the audience from an extra who passes the camera -- we become aware that this is a story and that we are externalized spectators. Some sense of the immediacy of the action is lost. This may seem detrimental for the fiction itself -- suddenly we remember that no matter what we say about the large creature lurking behind the protagonist in the horror film, she isn't going to see it until it's too late -- but intellectually, it is more interesting because it brings up issues regarding involvement. How do we engage with a text and create characters who seem as alive as our own friends out of words splayed on a page? The simple answer: the willing suspension of disbelief. We agree to forget that the text is just a construction of ink, and to instead move onto a conceptual level, attributing meaning and nuance to what amounts to a pile of letters thrown onto a page. It is a fascinating, almost miraculous, process that we generally take for granted when we pick up a book or start reading a story. Writing in elements that are on the verge of implausibility, or discussing other forms of entertainment that require the same kind of suspension of disbelief as does a novel is like a wink written into the extra's script by the implied author -- not enough to jar a reader into disbelief, but just enough that it seems to say, "We both know it's fiction, but what fun it is to pretend that it's real."

Yet, all suspensions of disbelief are not created equal. And so it is that while the sight of an elf suddenly striding into Mr. Darcy's home in Pride and Prejudice might cause a few readers to throw the book across the room, we have no objections at all to the presence of elves in Tolkein's Middle Earth (though some of us might wish that they didn't sing quite so much). And, while heroic cowboys work very well in the books of Louis L'Amour, we do not particularly expect -- or want -- them to ride in and save the day in the Paris of Anne Rice's vampires. This all has to do with the nature of our suspension of disbelief -- the way in which the implied author has defined the parameters of the world that you and she shall cohabit for the duration of the novel. Various fictions require different kinds of acceptance -- the contract between author and reader varies from one work to the next.

Wise Children is no exception. What makes it different from both fantasy and more conventional realism -- and takes it into the realm of Magical Realism -- is that the range of the suspension of disbelief is so very particular. While there are certainly elements of the fantastical -- and of the realisitic -- in the novel, ultimately, the events recounted inhabit a place that encroaches into several of these regions without permanently inhabiting them. Sometimes, the magical elements have a metaphorical resonance -- they present another way of depicting a series of events so that layers and depth can be revealed. At other times, these elements present a form of inclusion -- a way of drawing the reader into the action and celebrations, in the carnivalesque tradition. In other cases, these elements relate to moments of emotional resonance, and at still other times, there are cultural subtleties that are being evoked. Of course, often enough, several or all of these different elements -- and a few others besides -- are operating at once, adding depth and complexity to the magical events being depicted.

Some of these magical scenes in Wise Children seem wild, out of control or dreamlike -- full of pandemonium and oddity. These are moments of the carnivalesque.

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



return to PART 1 ~ DUALITIES


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Rev'd 2003/03/27