Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

A book group infiltration

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

AS WRITER and editor, I find that hours of tedious and/or creative work at the p.c. often require that I take short breaks to resuscitate myself. Whether it's a good habit is questionable, but many times I'll turn to the Internet, where writers and editors and publishing professionals gather in forums or over message boards to discuss industry related topics.

It was one such message board I had visited the day I recognized what broad differences there are between publishing professionals and readers when it comes to perceptions about literature.

Now, it's no secret an editor will read a book differently than a reader, much like a gemologist is going to scrutinize a diamond differently than a consumer, or an architect a homeowner's floor plan. But sometimes I wonder if professionals, whatever their trade, grow a bit myopic, as immersed as they are in their given areas of expertise.

On that particular day, in the writing forum I visit most often, I entered into a discussion of magical realism with a Former Publishing Professional who currently teaches literature somewhere in the eastern U.S.. We, and others, were continuing a thread on those stories we felt represented magical realism, a thread started, in part, by a drilling need to define magical realism. The greater context, as I recall, was whether writers can knowingly write magical realism for a commercial market, or whether such a marketing impulse should be left up to editors and publishers.

The thread turned to film and television as well, but for the most part we were discussing literature. There were suggestions and discussion, casual votes, a bit of quibbling ("Just because there is a mysterious cowboy narrator in The Big Lebowski does not automatically make it magical realism!" I remember asserting at one point), clarification, formal argumentation, sneering, jolly acceptance, apologetics and acquiescence -- all the signs of an active and engaging Internet discussion.

And that is the joy of it, at least for some of us: to dissect ideas, throw out theories we'd captured in our college days, create lists, write definitions, diagram categories for discussion, however impertinent they may be to the larger world of people who are not writers, editors, students...

...Former Publishing Professionals.

I stopped having fun that day when Former Publishing Professional said it was his opinion that it's useless to classify magical realism at any level.

Of course, that puts the kabosh on any wheel-spinning, however practical or impractical it may be, when someone else decides there is no relevance to one's own inquiry.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no shy violet on the 'net, I can grapple with the best of them when I feel strongly enough about a particular point. But are definitions of magical realism all that useless in discussion rooms inhabited mostly by writers? I probed him for clarification.

In reply, he insinuated that American readers don't know what magical realism is, and that magical realism is too sophisticated and difficult to grasp for the average American reader anyway.

For a time, hot air got to me, and I didn't go back to the topic. But then I got to thinking -- could it be true? Are Americans completely oblivious to magical realism? The journalist in me started kicking and screaming at me to find out.

Not long after, I discovered that a local book group was discussing one of the titles I'd recently added to our magical realism reading list at Margin. Plots to infiltrate began to bubble into my consciousness.

Marianne Mears is the owner of The Poulsbohemian, a curious little corner of eclectica in Poulsbo, Washington, where poets do monthly readings, where game players come together on weeknights for regular contests, and where there is a mysterious latté syrup flavor at the back of the coffee bar called "lutefisk" to remind you you're visiting a little corner of Norway. I'd attended the shop's fiction writing group on Monday nights (where, for just $5 a person, they close up shop for the group, and each member gets a beverage in the deal) and came to know Marianne as an affable, creative woman. It was from her cheerful quarterly newsletter that I'd read Blindness by José Saramago was that month's book for discussion.

"Have you read it?" I asked her, and though she said no, she did confess looking forward to the discussion later in the month. I then made my own confession, that I thought I might like to join that group as a spy, explaining how I was intent upon disproving a theory about American readers and magical realism. There was a wink, a plan, and then I was off to buy the book.

Back on Bainbridge Island, at Eagle Harbor Book Company, I asked for assistance in locating the title. The staff there is just amazing -- they can find anything if it's in the store, and if it's not there, you can usually order it and get it back in three days or less. But I didn't have to wait -- Blindness lay waiting on a special table in the front. As I paid for my purchase, the man helping me shared that he had read the book.

"I've heard it's good magical realism," I prompted, to which he replied, eyes narrowing: "I don't think it's magical realism, but it was a powerful read. A complicated book."

My heart sank fast as I carried my questionable treasure out of the store. Anxious that I had made a mistake, that the Poulsbohemian discussion would not be about magical realism at all, I paused along the boardwalk, flipping the cover to and fro in search of the words "magical realism". I found "uncanny" and "parable" on the back cover; "surreal allegory", "parable" again, a mention of Kafka, "allegory" again, "phantasmagoria", and finally -- thankfully! -- references to Gabriel García Márquez's Love In The Time Of Cholera gracing the praise pages. Close enough, I thought. I righted myself and took the thing home to read it.

It didn't take long for me to read Blindness, due in part to Saramago's intriguing premise -- that a contagious form of blindness has struck a city, and that in order to protect against an epidemic, the government has quarantined the afflicted in a former sanitorium. But the way in which the book is written, in sprawling and underpunctuated discourse that forces you to the edge of discomfort, meant I was staying up late to get through each successive museum of horrors, as the epidemic of blindness in the story consumed even the military guarding the quarantined, leaving only a woman, faking her own affliction, to tell the tale from the point of view of the inmates.

It's a good book, you should read it. I think they're making a film out of it.

But is it magical realism?

Well, of course, it is. At least, to me. I did feel obligated, however, to qualify its magical realism classification after reading Blindness.

But that wasn't hard. The premise alone is incredible, and there never was revealed any logical explanation for how blindness might ever be contagious (in the case of this story, you spread it simply by looking at another person). So, that takes the book squarely out of the realm of science fiction, where every last little thing is -- more or less -- explained.

There were other underpinnings of magical realism, besides. Clashes between all sorts of opposites: God and man, government and people, men and women, animals and humans. An implied questioning of assumed values (for instance, when you can't see, what does it matter to shower or use a toilet?). There was also an isolated setting, the sanitorium, which speaks to the prevalance of the solitary in all things magically real.

Fueled by my analysis, I was off to the discussion at last, ready to test my own assumptions. There were six or so members present at The Poulsbohemian, all of them women, and from what I could gather, none of them worked anywhere near a publishing environment of any kind.

None of them were Former Publishing Professionals.

Happily, of the members present, only one did not like the book. Let me refer to her as Anne. Now, liking something and understanding it may be two separate things, but I'll venture this: Anne, who disliked Blindness, also disliked One Hundred Years Of Solitude for its spiraling, nonlinear structure and overly complicated character scheme ("You have all these men of different generations sharing the same name! I couldn't keep any of it straight!" she shared in a moment of exasperation. "And now this author! He doesn't use any punctuation!").

I'll hand it to her, this is a woman who knows what she likes, and what Anne likes is realism, nothing more, nothing less. And it's worth saying, I'm okay with the idea that not everyone appreciates or likes magical realism, it's whether they "get it" that counts. And Anne "got" it, she understood that the lack of punctuation was purposeful, that the order of things must change when an entire society has been stricken of its ability to see, and that loss of order was meaningfully conveyed through Saramago's carefully unpunctuated sentences.

Anne got it; she just didn't like the book.

Of the remaining members, a couple stood out as shining stars.

One (I'll call her Barb) went far beyond my expectations in that she researched Saramago (I'm ashamed to admit, more than I did). She pulled out lists of prizes. She shared information about the author's atheist and Communist associations. She theorized about extended metaphors in the novel. She read entire passages that moved her (and the rest of us, for that matter). She posited a theme, which we tossed back and forth much in the same way threads in my online writing forum are tossed back and forth.

Barb got it.

Another member -- say, Charlotte -- proffered an alternative reading of the novel that provoked even deeper discussion. She also made comparisons to Kafka right away, and these to a circle of nodding heads.

Charlotte got it. Heck, everyone got it.

Let me tell you, I was supercharged by this evidence, this irrefutable proof that American readers do "get" magical realism, they are patient with complex narrative structures and multilayered stories, they will seek, independently, a broader understanding. (Well, admittedly, it was an imperfect survey, completely biased, irreplicable at the scientific level, but I don't think empirical data was my original aim.)

When it came my turn to share, I finally insinuated my real purpose in joining them. I could barely stand not to tell them how well they had "passed" this examination, that even Anne, who did not like the book, still "appreciated" magical realism, still confirmed my theory, that Americans do indeed understand magical realism.

And what I got in turn were blank stares. "Magical realism?"

"Oh, is that what that's called?" Anne piped in.

"No, it's more like mystical writing," Charlotte protested. "I wouldn't call it magical realism. Mystical realism, maybe?"

And Barb: "No, this is fantasy, sure enough."

Bells pealed in my ears.

After my hasty, nervous interpretation of the term magical realism -- after they shed their collective grimace, after they began to wrap their mouths around the words, after they found interest in Alejo Carpentier's concept of the marvelous real, after they even scribbled notes for further reading -- after all that, I skipped off with the dregs of my latté wondering whether I had learned or proved anything at all.

But I had, and so had they.

You know the old adage, "If it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, it must be a duck?" Well, what happens if you don't know what the word is for duck? Do you deny the existence of the duck because you don't know what to call it? No, you just acknowledge it, you call it something else until someone tells you otherwise, you move on.

I have since read a lot of jacket covers. Occasionally, the words "magical realism" appear together, and I am heartened. But I have a lot of books of magical realism on my shelf that make no show of it whatsoever in their jacket copy or on their praise pages. Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau. The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie. Sugar Cage by Connie May Fowler. Even Don Quixote's cover is noticeably bereft of references to magical realism.

So is my Former Publishing Professional cohort right? Do American readers really know how to define magical realism?

Or -- ultimately -- does it matter?

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Rev'd 2003/03/27