Nailing Down Magical Realism

This isn’t going to matter unless you are a bit of a lit nerd.

I’m participating in a “Directed Reading” for the rest of the year, focusing on Magical Realism. (The air quotes are in there because the ‘reading list’ includes stuff like Pan’s Labyrinth and Big Fish, with which I otherwise have no problem.) The goal of the DR is basically to sort out what the term even means in modern literature – there’s some historical examination – looking at where the term originated and why, but mostly the goal is to work out for ourselves what the hell this creature even is.

I think everyone participating will come up with an answer. I very much doubt we’ll all agree. Magical Realism is a bit of mess. From a literary criticism point of view, it’s functionally useless – it isn’t a real thing when looked at with any academic level of rigor. It’s just a term that gets thrown around a lot, applied to many things it shouldn’t, some that it should, and is often dismissed out of hand by those who see only the sloppiness with which the label is usually applied.

So, the first assignment: list four ‘core’ elements that (first) make a story Magical Realism and (second) not anything else. This is my list.

  1. Magical elements. This almost goes without saying, given the term “magical realism”, but it needs specific mention as a prerequisite: magical or fantastical elements appear in an otherwise objective, realistic story. If this isn’t happening there’s no point in looking at the latter criteria.
  2. The magical is mundane. When magical elements are introduced, the story proceeds as if nothing extraordinary took place. 
  3. Antinomy is accepted by the characters in the story. Contrast this with standard contemporary fantasy, where magical elements are remarked upon or explained at length and usually in detail. In fantasy, the presence of the magical or supernatural is something that draws special attention; in magical realism, the natural and supernatural are equally ‘valid’ elements the story, neither one more (or less) deserving of attention.
  4. Authorial reticence. This is a central element, for me – especially when it comes to setting magical realism apart from standard fantasy. In short, the narrator does not provide explanation for the magical elements in the story. Explaining the supernatural world reduces or destroys its magical nature. You would no more stop to explain why one of the characters floats three inches above the ground than you would stop and explain why a character’s car starts up when they turn the key in the ignition.

This list is my starting position. I fully expect it will change – in fact, I’ve rewritten or revised the thing four times while writing this post, moving bits from #2 to #3 and from #3 to #4, and I’m still not happy with it. I strongly suspect that points 2, 3, and 4 are describing different parts of the same elephant (introduced via point 1). A shorter list might read:

  1. Magical elements in an otherwise objective, realistic story.
  2. Antinomy within the story is accepted by the characters/narrator; both ‘sides’ are seen as equally valid, important, (un)remarkable.
  3. Explaining the supernatural elements reduces or destroys the power they bring to a story told in this style.

I like this list quite a bit more than the longer one, but the instructions say four points (for now), so what can you do.

We’ll see where I end up by December.

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