Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

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ORDINARY ENCHANTMENTS: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative
By Wendy B. Faris
280 pp
Vanderbilt University Press
$34.95, Paperback

I'M ALWAYS in pursuit of texts which work to explain the whys and wherefores of literary magical realism. There have been quite a few books published on the subject within the last decade, each with its own blueprint for defining magical realism, its own sets of examples. These are all honest, earnest efforts at demystifying what has become perhaps the most important narrative form of the 21st century.

Wendy B. Faris's Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative leads this coalition of texts seeking to illuminate the subject. Faris, probably best known for her work with Lois Parkinson Zamora on the groundbreaking compilation, Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, takes on the considerable task of defining magical realism, not through a compendium of essays and references from other literary critics (as she and Zamora did with in Magical Realism), but rather through her own exacting and well-researched efforts. What results is an intelligent, scholarly work imbued with a passion for the subject, a noticeable bravery in confronting critics of the magical realist mode and a venturing into the fresh territory of women's writing as it further strengthens the purpose of magical realism (and vice versa).

This is a scholarly work, I repeat. For the casual reader, I would recommend a companion collegiate dictionary for breaking down some of the terms in the event you never studied graduate-level literature (I didn't, for what it's worth; I studied journalism). But don't let words like mythopoetic and ontological and polyvocality keep you from investigating this excellent book. If you truly want to understand what makes literary magical realism tick, then Ordinary Enchantments is your ticket. Faris has been teaching, writing about and dissecting magical realism for more than two decades.

This book opens up the discussion in ways I haven't encountered previously. As a writer of magical realism, I found Faris's rationales, points and validations elucidating and think this book might be the ultimate tool for any writer who wants to make their own magical realist stories work. Not only from a technical angle, but spiritually, culturally and politically.

The book's Introduction lays excellent groundwork for the chapters to come. Naturally, there is a brief definition of magical realism on page 1:

"Very briefly defined, magical realism combines realism and the fantastic so that the marvelous seems to grow organically within the ordinary, blurring the distinction between them."

Before we even get to this definition, though, Faris gives us the assertion that sets up the foundation for her entire book:

"The term magical realism,... now designates perhaps the most important contemporary trend in international fiction. Magical realism has become so important as a mode of expression worldwide, especially in postcolonial cultures, because it has provided the literary ground for significant cultural work; within its texts, marginal voices, submerged traditions, and emergent literatures have developed and created masterpieces."

And Faris lays her plan out clearly from the start, that her goal with Ordinary Enchantments "is to continue the critical trend that extends the mode beyond [Latin America], beyond 'El Boom,' which popularized the term," correctly asserting that "magical realism is interwoven with many strands of contemporary fiction" and that "a truly comprehensive study of magical realism in world literature would need to range much more widely and, I suspect, could be extended into other literatures, especially in the Near and Far East."

This, of course, annoys some critics, who contend that too wide a definition is not useful. Faris, however, argues brilliantly throughout the book in favor of an exploration into magical realism as not only a signature Latin American phenomonen, but a globally practiced, understood and respected mode that extends beyond geographies.

In fact, one of my favorite aspects of this book is Faris's expedition into the territory of feminine writing as an important contemporary exponent of the mode.

"Although the narrative mode of magical realism belongs, in a sense, to both genders, it may be possible to locate a female spirit characterized by structures of diffusion, polyvocality, and attention to issues of embodiment, to an earth-centered spirit world, and to collectivity, among other things, that is active in magical realism generally, regardless of authorship. ... The answer to whether we can discern a feminine thread in magical realism as a whole, whether or not the author is a woman, is a qualified yes."

The last chapter, "Women and Women and Women," accounts for both male and female authors of magical realist fiction, so in no way can readers imagine that Faris is using her research to vent any perceived feminist sensibility. She acknowledges the important male component from El Boom,

"The first wave of magical realist fiction, including [Carlos Fuentes's] Aura, was written largely by men, but the female voice has been rapidly surfacing, as it has in all domains. The increase in female magical realist texts reflects the decolonizing potential of the mode. If women writers have felt like a colony, telling their own stories provides an exit from that position, and the magical elements that disrupt realism's domination of representation lend them the strength to travel. ..."

She quotes Isabel Allende (below) to back up her conviction:

"Today, great writers from minority groups in the US are finding their voice in the wonderful, rich imagery of magic realism. Writers such as Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Amy Tan all have a unique, rich way of writing that can be described as magic realism."

Of particular interest was a discussion of Toni Morrison's resistance to the label, magical realist, as "disturbingly hegemonic." Parenthetically, Faris points out that

"her declaration virtually duplicates García Márquez's statements that his magical realism results simply from his reporting what he observes or is told, and Alejo Carpentier's claims that 'marvelous American reality' simply reflects actual American phenomena and events."

Morever, Faris contends that Morrison's resistance to the label is a mistake, one which even Morrison seemed to acknowledge following the publication of Beloved in 1988: "I have become indifferent, I suppose, to the phrase 'magical realism.' Faris is not striking an offensive posture here, but one supportive of Morrison's talent: "Indifferent—even mildly hostile—to the term, she masterfully employs the techniques."

The first chapter in Ordinary Enchantments is equally provocative and informational. I would go as far as to say that every decent literary criticism class should incorporate "Chapter One: Definitions and Locations" as required reading for students of magical realism. Faris explores what she considers the five key characteristics distinguishing literary magical realism. In a nutshell, they are:

The Irreducible Element

The Phenomenal World
Unsettling Doubts
Merging Realms
Disruptions of Time, Space, and Identity

These sections are rich with examples and explanation and will serve as a cornerstone for our own discussions at Margin regarding the identification of the mode.

Following the definitions section is a useful foray into the geographical (and other) locations of magical realism. This lies, I believe, at the heart of most controversial discussions surrounding the mode. Where are the origins of magical realism? Are they based purely on geographical, political and/or cultural distinctions, or is the landscape of magical realism beyond these obvious planes? These questions lead invariably into discussions that Faris launches, head on, in later chapters about authenticity, ventriloquism, and the relationships between language, memory and cultural identity.

Right away, Faris points to several ways in which magical realism is perceived, all of them in pairs that illustrate the mode's dualistic dynamic:

"Geographical stylistics are problematic, but one might speculate about the existance of a tropical lush and a northerly spare variety of the magical realist plant. In the northerly variety, there is less magic and its range is more circumscribed: the ingenious and rather programmatic magic of smell in Perfume, and the very small intrusions of magical event in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, for example, contrast with the more pervasive magic in García Márquez and Rushdie; the occasional magic of Beloved is somewhere in between the two."

She credits literary historian Jean Weisgerber with dividing magical realism into two strains, one scholarly, the other mythic. This, she says, supports a proposal by Roberto González Echevarría that magical realism can be typified in two ways: epistemiologically (or, stemming from observation) or ontologically (or, stemming from a "marvelous" origin). Faris tries out these notions in an experiment and willingly admits a crumbling of categories, which is a troublesome aspect for anyone trying to define magical realism in a concrete and finite way. But from this angle she turns course and examines magical realism from the geographic perspectives of European versus American (meaning, all of the Americas). Hers is a valid argument that also gives important historical context to the discussion.

Later in this chapter she points to Fuentes's excellent suggestion that it is a mistake "to label novelists rather than texts," something we learned while putting together the foundation for our own recommended reading list at Margin There are many authors who only sometimes venture into magical realist territory. I think immediately of Aimee Bender's Girl in the Flammable Skirt, a collection that offers magical realism, straight realism, postmodern writing and surrealism all together in one package. When discussing magical realism, it seems more useful, at least to me, to focus on specific examples rather than oeuvres if we are to appreciate not only its power as a form but its utility as a tool for those writers who need to diverge from traditional forms and theories in order to tell a story the way it is meant to be told. If we were to think of magical realism in terms of works alone, this might also offer some relief to those authors (many of them Hispanic) who are fearful of the pigeonholing that might result. Such an imposed genrification of work may work for some authors, but for many others, it becomes a kind of literary typecasting that authors often can't break away from.

(Conversely, mystery author Sara Paretsky, who wrote the powerful magical realist novel, Ghost Country, struggled to see that title succeed after so many years of writing V.I. Warshawski novels because readers were not expecting her to stretch and challenge her own oeuvre.)

There are three other equally meaty chapters in Ordinary Enchantments. In "From a Far Source Within" (chapter 2), Faris uses her coinage, defocalization, to show that the perspective from which events are presented in a magical realist text is both indeterminate and unlocatable. In a nutshell, she explains how the powerful tropes of realism are also equally engaged in the writing of magical realism, but in a complex process that shapes a different result. Herein lies discussion about belief systems, communal realities and a comparison between mystical and secular worldviews. Chapter 3, "Encoding the Ineffable," covers the mythos and language that give magical realism its distinct beauty and character as well as the flow of information between worlds and the way this transport distinguishes magical realism from other kinds of fantasy. For fans of the Caribbean edition of Margin, chapter 4 might be of particular interest: "Along the Knife-Edge of Change" focuses on many subjects we addressed at that time: memory, history, ideology, Otherness, the aesthetics of a cultural voice and identity. Faris borrows from Guyanese literary master Wilson Harris for the chapter's title:

"With the mutilation and decline of the conquered tribe a new shaman or artist struggles to emerge who finds himself moving along the knife-edge of change."

I like this quote because, for me, it not only refers to the literary situation in the Caribbean, but to a changing worldview even among people who are assumed to be part of the power structure. New voices are emerging at an exciting rate to share stories from the interiors of their marginal communities. These stories challenge what has been assumed as "normal" and "real" for far too long. I'm talking about the stories of women, of homosexuals, of new immigrants and exiles, of people with mixed racial identities, of the handicaped, the economically deprived, the privately abused and familially scarred. The larger awareness of terrorism in the US has perhaps also fueled a renewed interest in alternative truths, as people witness the detention of their neighbors for reasons as vacuous as library lending patterns, Internet-fed curiosity or shopping habits, or as sinister as federally sanctioned profilihng, unpopular political convictions or oppositional activism.

Some other things I really liked about this book: a willingness to discuss popular culture (magical realist film in the mainstream), some clarifying distinctions between magical realism and genre (fantasy, gothic writing, the supernatural), Faris's excellent bibliography and a sustained focus on the necessarily political nature of magical realism. I also appreciate that Ordinary Enchantments stretches the author's own understanding of magical realism and is not simply a repackaging of her other works. She could have done this, but no: her's is a life-long interest. It's not surprising to me that, with this book, she succeeds in maintaining her status as a leading expert on the subject. Faris is nothing if not relentless about her homework. The research for Ordinary Enchantments is impeccable and extensive, and her footnotes make for engaging reading in their own right

Finally, this book brings us a bit of biographical history of the venerable Ms. Faris. At the beginning of the book, she relates the story of a Fijian cannibal fork (read it here by scrolling down inside that page). The story gives us a personal glimpse into the context of her early life and how this particular event has had an enduring, shaping influence over her worldview as an educator and literary scholar. An observant reader will also note the cover art, a fluid and colorful abstract created by none other than Faris herself.

Faris has selected a wealth of diverse texts upon which to base her assertions in Ordinary Enchantments. These books should belong in any master reading list focusing on literary magical realism, in our opinion: The House of the Spirits (Allende), So Far From God (Castillo), Pig Tales (Darrieussecq), Aura and Distant Relations (Fuentes), One Hundred Years of Solitude (García Márquez), The Tin Drum (Grass), Palace of the Peacock (Harris), The Woman Warrior (Hong Kingston), Ironweed (Kennedy), The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Kundera), Beloved (Morrison), The Famished Road (Okri), That Voice (Pinget), Pedro Páramo (Rulfo), Midnight's Children (Rushdie), Perfume (Süskind) and The White Hotel (Thomas). She also refers to many other fine contemporary and classic literary artists of the mode, including some of my favorites (Borges, Erdrich, Gogol, Kafka, Paz and Saramago).

There are so many other valid observations to cull from this book that for me to outline them here would be plagiaristic. Faris is that rich in her analysis. But I can safely say that her relentless questioning of boundaries, her willingness to map concepts that either intersect or veer away from one another, and her courage in challenging assumptions about literature make Ordinary Enchantments a powerful, even empowering, guidebook.

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Rev'd 2004/10/21