Monday, September 24, 2012

Dissecting Genre: Magical Realism

Hey everyone! Sorry for the late post tonight. It's been a crazy day, because...

I now have a literary agent!  Hurray!  I'm now part of the family at Veritas Literary.  Check out my blog to read some of the details.  I'm so thrilled!

Ah... ahem.  And now, onto the post!

Ah, Magical Realism! My favorite genre, and the one that gets me the most confused looks when I try to explain it. So, why don't we start there?

What is Magical Realism?

I've seen agents complain that they get queries for 'magical realism' manuscripts that are really urban fantasy manuscripts.  I think these two genres are often confused.  Urban Fantasy is when a fantasy world meets our real world (originally, specifically in an urban setting, though that seems to have fallen away somewhat), whereas Magical Realism is more integrated than that.  In Magical Realism, the fantastic is part of the every day, making the every day seem fantastic.

Bruce Holland Rogers writes, "magical realist writers write the ordinary as miraculous and the miraculous as ordinary. The ice that gypsies bring to the tropical village of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude is described with awe. How can such a substance exist? It is so awesomely beautiful that characters find it difficult to account for or describe. But it's not just novelties such as a first encounter with ice that merit such description. The natural world comes in for similar attention. The behavior of ants or the atmosphere of a streamside oasis are described in details that match objective experience, but which remind us that the world is surprising and seemingly full of design and purpose.

The miraculous, on the other hand, is described with a precision that fits it into the ordinariness of daily life. ...An even better example is the character who is so beautiful that she is followed everywhere by a cloud of butterflies. This extraordinary trait is brought to earth somewhat by the observation that all of the butterflies have tattered wings. The miraculous, looked at closely, is mundane." (link)

In other words, the every day is described so carefully, so imaginatively, that it reminds us of the magical world we live in throughout our normal lives, and the fantastic is described as part of that world seamlessly, so that it only highlights the awe of every bit of ordinary life.

What does it do?

One way I like to look at Magical Realism is as something like an impressionist painting.  Impressionists used 'unrealistic' colors and shapes to depict the world in order to more accurately capture their perceptions of the world.  Have you ever tried to take a photograph of a place, only to find that the result is nowhere near what you perceived?  This happens to me frequently, especially in wide open spaces or landscapes. My photographs of the Russian steppe or the Negev Desert don't begin to capture the awe of those gorgeous expanses of earth and sky.  But I find there are paintings of these locales that do, or come much closer to. Using a wider palette of colors, depth, and physics than 'reality' strictly allows, enables artists to capture that 'reality' far more accurately.

Magical Realism, when done well, achieves the same result in literature. When I'm reading Magical Realism is when I most frequently stop and think, "YES! That is what falling in love is like."  "YES! That is what grieving is like."  "YES! That is what living is like." So magical.  Our lives are so magical.

For some examples, I recommend 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, and Big Fish (film).  Lindsey recommends On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta.  I'm also pretty excited about Teeth by Hannah Moskowitz, which is set to come out in January.

What about you? What Magical Realism do you love? Or do you have a different definition to add?