Magical Unrealism

13 May 1999, 832 words

When, a few weeks ago, I wrote a column confessing I could make neither head nor tails of Beloved, some readers took this to mean that I don't like Toni Morrison's writing. In fact, I think Morrison is an excellent writer. Her novel Sula is on my top shelf of favourite books - a rather eclectic list which includes The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, Woody Allen's Complete Prose, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, It by Stephen King, The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, Derek Walcott's Midsummer and Naipaul's Miguel Street.

So Morrison is in exalted company, as she deserves to be. But that doesn't mean she can't write a bad book. In fact, with Tar Baby, I'm pretty sure she has done so. With Beloved, I haven't made yet up my mind. What I have made up my mind about is that magical realism is praised by critics for all the wrong reasons.

Magical realist writers eschew space and time. Critics like this. Responding to my original column, columnist Debbie Jacob explained that "We have been conditioned to believe that time must take certain forms in literature to ring true. Magical realists present time as it really exists with no clear delineation of past, present and future."

Now I have no idea of how time really exists but neither, for that matter, did Albert Einstein. What I do know is that, in ordinary life, people do perceive time as linear. While it is true that we consider past events and anticipate future ones in our day-to-day activities, we always retain a clear distinction between, say, a past event and our present recollection of a past event. Thus, a novelist who blurs this distinction naturally confuses the reader, because the novel then contradicts our normal understanding of reality. The "conditioning" here is not cultural, but arises out of our perception of physical reality. That is why most novels are written in linear time.

Or consider this dialogue from Beloved, which denies space: "Where I was before I came here, that place is real. It's never going away. Even if the whole farm - every tree and grass blade of it dies. The picture is still there and what's more, if you go there-you who never was there-if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you."

Now, as symbolism or character portrait, this works. But as a picture of reality, it goes straight back to discredited metaphysical concepts like Plato's Forms or Hegel's monism. And, just as mysticism is a lazy man's philosophy, so too it seems to me that magical realism is often a lazy writer's technique.

You see, the most difficult challenges a novelist faces frequently have to do with the most mundane details: delineating landscape and event. Leave out those and your task becomes relatively easy. You do not need to plot, or pace, or even describe with any rigor. Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock, lacking all these elements, is highly confusing and therefore highly praised by more ideological critics.

In this regard, it is rather ironic that the writer who has done most to popularise magical realism is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for Marquez is a writer who pays close attention to detail and to realistic characterization. The contrast with his flexible space-time is thus all the more surprising and never done for its own sake. (It is interesting to note that, in this respect, Marquez's technique is exactly the same as the world's best-selling novelist, Stephen King.) In fact, Marquez was inspired to become a writer after reading Kafka's The Metamorphosis, which tells the story of a clerk who wakes up to find he has become a giant cockroach. The power of that story comes from its contrast between the extraordinary event and the mundane middle-class existence of the characters.

All good art allows us to see more deeply into reality. Magical realism can accomplish this in two ways: firstly, where realism is emphasized in counterpoint to the magical part; and, second, by presenting fiction purely as fiction, much like Brechtian technique in theatre where the actors address the audience directly. By defying time and space, magical realism deliberately breaks the reader's suspension of disbelief.

Magical realism therefore works effectively when it makes the reader consider the nature of reality. But, because literary critics are just as superstitious as the next man, they have praised the technique for exactly the opposite effect: for blurring the distinction between reality and illusion. But only the bad novels do that - bad novels being those which require effortful analysis only to be repaid by mundane characters and absurd philosophy. Since so many magical realism novels fall into that category, it is probably the sloppy thinking of the people who uncritically praise them which mainly explains why these books are in literary fashion.

Copyright ©1999 Kevin Baldeosingh