The Varieties and Versatility of Magical Realism
Love in the Time of Cholera, 20th Century Fox, 2007
by Anthony Ausiello
I had always considered magical realism to be some distant, pale cousin of fantasy writing or science fiction. Mistakenly, I had classified the term as solely a genre of fiction. But reading Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men made me realize magical realism could play a complex role in fiction, that it could be utilized as another literary tool in an author’s craft. I was struck by both the frequency and placement of magical realism throughout Kunzru’s novel, though I still had difficulty in assessing its overall effect. When Kunzru spoke at an MFA residency I attended, he told assembled students and faculty that the novel had sprung from two desires: to write about both UFOs and a missing child. He also added that a central question or theme in his novel became how people handle not only the unknown, but also the unknowable. Hearing this, I realized that Kunzru’s use of magical realism created a balance that reinforced and emphasized his theme of the unknowable.
In Gods Without Men, strange encounters and happenings transpire around a rocky formation of the Mojave Desert known as Pinnacle Rock for over two centuries. Early on, Kunzru departs from his limited omniscient POV to present an epistolary chapter— a 1778 report from the local Spanish governor to his superior. The hidalgo recounts a tale told to him by a missionary, Fray Garces, after the priest’s long journey through the desert to Pinnacle Rock, “At this place he encountered an angel in the form of a man, who conversed with him and revealed certain mysteries. He appears troubled…and having told me the story, at once apologized for it saying certain things ought to remain in silence” (Kunzru 54). The placement of this magical account within official government correspondence grants it greater validity. The event was evaluated and deemed worth reporting up a chain of command. Yet at the same time, it is hard to dismiss the notion that the story could simply be a heat and thirst induced hallucination. In having Fray Garces perceive the visitor as “an angel,” Kunzru evokes the origin of much religious folklore— as context for people to rationalize what was then unexplainable. Both the encounter and its interpretation pose more questions than answers.
Kunzru then shifts time to the mid-twentieth century to detail the inception of a cult based upon the sightings at Pinnacle Rock. He introduces Schmidt, the cult’s eventual founder, as a man with a checkered history who arrives at Pinnacle Rock in search of personal redemption and greater universal meaning. Run out of his hometown and working as a janitor at an air hangar during WWII, Schmidt believes he glimpses the key to his salvation, “Watching the great machines take off and land…he felt that here was the secret made manifest”. Disqualified from becoming a pilot by poor eyesight, he instead studies to be an aircraft mechanic so he could participate in the magic of flight, “It had fallen to him to unify them. Perhaps when he was brought before his maker, he would not be judged as a monster, but as a good man”. This paradigm is shattered after Hiroshima, “His beautiful gleaming aircraft, his harbingers of light, had been used to unleash darkness. He’d been betrayed”.
So by the time “the aliens” appear, Kunzru’s character development has already established Schmidt’s desperate need to belong to something bigger, “One hot night…dozing after his usual dinner…He opened his eyes…That was when he saw it: a bright point of light hanging low over the horizon…it was disk-shaped, featureless but for a ring of iridescent lights round the rim”. Once the object lands, Schmidt observes, “Two human figures, one male, the other voluptuously female…The pair were dressed in simple white robes…Come, said a voice…Come inside we have something to show you. At last, he thought smiling”. The author presents a vivid alien encounter while simultaneously suggesting cause for skepticism. Schmidt was “dozing off” prior to the experience. It all could be a dream. Also, the aliens’ appearance and their choice of words provide Schmidt with exactly the greater purpose and opportunity for redemption he’d hoped for. It feels too convenient. However, Kunzru’s non-linear structure soon compelled me to reconsider my doubts about Schmidt’s sighting. The flashback to the Fray Garces tale in the form of official government correspondence established a historical precedent for sightings in the area and thereby increased the plausibility of the Schmidt encounter.
Kunzru seamlessly weaves a missing children storyline into the history of both Pinnacle Rock and Schmidt’s cult. The first missing child is Judy, the daughter of Joanie, a distressed housewife attending a mass gathering at the Pinnacles during the cult’s early years. Schmidt, now known as the Guide, reveals to his followers that the aliens had declared to him, “You are a special one”, and he repeats the message to his new followers, “…you’re all special to me. You are the Star People”. The cult members listen to the words that they are desperate to hear just as Schmidt also had years earlier—they are special, the chosen people that will be saved during a future apocalypse. An accidental explosion kills the Guide and apparently claims the life of Joanie’s daughter, Judy. However, Judy mysteriously reappears some time later. Joanie and “the first follower” Clark Davis have assumed leadership of the cult and use Judy’s tale to recruit members, claiming she was not missing but was taken by the aliens to be groomed as the next Guide. As the years pass, the cult’s message of universal harmony becomes intertwined with drug running and prostitution. Kunzru’s dialogue casts suspicion upon Judy’s mysterious return:
“Why would he kill me Dawnie? He found me and took me up and looked after me for so very long?
“…wait a minute? You said he found you?”
“…I thought you walked out of the desert. Maa Joanie waited for you…
“I was the answer to her prayers?”
“Are you saying you are not her daughter?”
“Dawnie, there are things that are over and done.”
It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish sinister from supernatural in the novel.
History is repeated when decades later Raj, the autistic young son of Jaz and Lisa, disappears while visiting Pinnacle Rock. Both parents are initially overjoyed when months later, Raj also almost-magically reappears. He soon begins to exhibit increased language and cognitive skills. Lisa, who turned to spiritualism while her son was missing, accepts his return and newfound development as a miracle. Jaz feels otherwise. He tells Lisa, “But ever since he came back there’s been something different about Raj. He’s not the same kid…No, I mean he’s not the same kid. It’s not Raj. It looks like him, smells like him. It has his body. But it’s not Raj”. Again, Kunzru’s timing and structure is critical. The questionable nature of Judy’s disappearance and return has already been disclosed; thus Jaz’s suspicions seem immediately credible. Yet while Raj’s suddenly improved abilities seem unlikely, they are no more impossible than a special needs child who exhibits increased skills after listening to classical music for the first time or being exposed to horseback riding.
Kunzru has also already established that both parents were in a state of terrible distress at the time of Raj’s disappearance. The night before Raj vanishes, Lisa and Jaz had a terrible fight, “I mean look at him, Lisa! He’s not normal…And if you really want to know, yes, sometimes it feels like a curse. It feels like I’m being punished”. Lisa stormed out and wound up getting drunk at a local bar and having sex with a young soldier. While Raj is missing both parents spend months tortured by self-loathing—Jaz wonders if he is being punished for some secret wish fulfillment, and Lisa for her brief abandonment and affair. Just as with Schmidt and Joanie, the reliability of their perception is tainted by loss and desperation.
Kunzru’s blend of character development with both the timing and placement of magical realism challenges the reliability of character perception and motivation, but is never enough to completely dismiss the validity of the fantastic experiences. If Kunzru were to increase or decrease the amount of magical realism or structure events with less precision, the narrative could easily become a traditional, realistic search for the meaning of life or one of speculative fantasy or science fiction. Kunzru’s magical realism never provides definitive answers or truths; it only suggests possibilities, which in a novel about people struggling with the unknowable seems the proper place to leave off.
In order to explore how Kunzru’s techniques compare with others, I turned to one of the founders of magical realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In Love In The Time Of Cholera, Garcia Marquez employs a ubiquitous magical realism with characters, settings, and the concept of time. With the exception to one brief mention of a ghost, the magical realism of Garcia Marquez is rooted in excess and exaggeration rather than the supernatural. The plot centers on a love between Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza that takes over fifty years to be consummated. Early in the novel Florentino Ariza appears at the funeral Daza’s deceased husband to proclaim his ongoing devotion: ““Fermina,” he said, “I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love”. In an extended flashback, Garcia Marquez then presents a world filled with magical realism to suggest how a romance this unlikely is possible.
Where Kunzru uses ordinary characters that behave in a realistic manner to contrast how magical realism impacts and changes them, Garcia Marquez fills his novel with fantastic characters tinted to some degree by his magical realism of exaggeration. Fermina Daza is described as having a sense of smell so acute that she is able to locate her infant son by sniffing for a soiled diaper, “She…turned around two or three times like a tracking mastiff, and found the boy asleep in an armoire”. Florentino Ariza is a man so consumed by love that he, “wrote everything with so much passion that even official documents seemed to be about love. His bills of lading were rhymed no matter how he tried to avoid it”. The most striking exaggeration by Garcia Marquez is the sheer number of lovers he attributes to Ariza during the fifty years he pines for Daza, “…he had some twenty-five notebooks, with six hundred twenty-two entries of long-term liaisons, apart from the countless fleeting adventures that did not even deserve a charitable note”. While mathematically feasible in a long life, this hyperbolic amount of sexual activity implies the immense love and passion Ariza holds for Daza. The staggering number of affairs suggests that in the absence of his true love, only the combined effort of every available female imaginable sustains Ariza.
Background characters are painted with a similarly bizarre attributes. One of Ariza’s lovers, “…in order to reach the heights of glory, she had to suck on an infant’s pacifier while they made love”; Another, “…enjoyed a legendary career as a clandestine courtesan, who deserved her nom de guerre, Our Lady of Everybody…President Rafael Reyes…granted her a lifetime pension for distinguished services…” Even animals possess fantastic abilities. Dr. Urbino, whom Daza initially marries instead of Ariza, owns a parrots that sings French songs in “a woman’s voice if they were hers, in a tenor’s voice if they were his”. Later in the novel we meet a bishop’s mule, “who, it was said, performed miracles behind his master’s back”. In Kunzru, it is only when the characters traverse through Pinnacle Rock that magical realism touches their lives. Garcia Marquez directly instills his characters, human or otherwise, with hyperbolic traits and, by extension, that these characters are then the source of further magical realism seems quite plausible.
Setting in the novel also is rendered with magical realism. Ariza’s and Daza’s hometown at one point is described: “In summer invisible dust as harsh as red-hot chalk was blown into the best-protected corners of imagination by mad winds that took the roofs off the houses and carried away children through the air”. The use of the adjective “mad” suggests a magical personification to the winds, while the surreal power of the gusts calls to mind a scene from The Wizard Of Oz. There is another town with an unusual tally of nightmarish hernia sufferers, “the sight of men with ruptures sitting in their doorways on hot afternoons, fanning their enormous testicle as if it was a child sleeping between their legs”. In Kunzru, Pinnacle Rock is fantastic because of the how that specific location effects people otherwise ordinary. Garcia Marquez establishes an extended geography, as well as collection of people, already imbued with magical realism, a setting where subsequent magical realism becomes almost expected.
A similar potential for danger and menace exists within the magical realism of Garcia Marquez as it did in Kunzru. The prostitutes that Ariza befriends at the whorehouse he works in are initially described as “naked nymphs”, evoking playful creatures of mythology and elevating the setting from mundane to magical. However, further details tarnish the initial harmless images, “Many displayed in their nudity traces of their past: scars of knife thrusts in the belly, starbursts of gunshot wounds, ridges of the razor cuts of love, Caesarean sections sewn up by butchers”. Later in the novel, Ariza learns of a fate he narrowly escapes when one affair is interrupted prior to consummation: “She had decapitated a guard and seriously wounded two others with a machete…” Several of Ariza’s lovers are murdered or commit suicide as a direct result of their affairs. Garcia Marquez also offers a parallel to the Ariza-Daza relationship tale—Daza reads of a couple having a forty yearlong affair that, “had been murdered, bludgeoned to death”. So while Garcia Marquez’s magical realism builds toward the potential of a grand love story, many of the fantastic traits and events also create and maintain a sense peril that suggests a happy ending is not guaranteed.
Garcia Marquez use of time in conjunction with magical realism is also critical. Like Kuzru, Garcia Marquez moves back and forth in time suggesting a pliability and non-linear concept of time that allows for the possibility of the unlikely. Kunzru juxtaposes the past to lend credibility to present day events. In Garcia Marquez, time is not something that limits his characters or seals away possibility. The extreme lapse of time between Ariza being spurned by Daza and then ultimately reconciling with her elevates the mundane notion of an unrequited love. It suggests a love of immense magnitude able to transcend even the natural flow of time.
The novel concludes with one final exaggeration. Just as Ariza and Daza seem to arrive at a moment where they have finally acknowledged their love for each other and desire to remain together, their journey by boat threatens to come to an end. They fear that returning to their homes and families will break this hard earned union. To keep the journey going, the ship’s Captain dismisses all other passengers and raises the Cholera flag that signifies infected passengers. The Captain asks Ariza:
“How long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming
and going?” he asked. Florentino Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights.
“Forever” he said.
Garcia Marquez’s final words suggest that their story has crossed over into the timeless, exaggerated world of fairy tales. Even though Garcia Marquez has built a world populated with marvelous places and characters, they are all still subject to the failings and dangers of the natural world. His magical realism of exaggeration explains how an unlikely and impossible love can persevere through over a half century of obstacles and potential pitfalls and finally come to pass.
In contrast to the ubiquitous magical realism of Garcia Marquez, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress Of Solitude contains only one concrete instance of magical realism— a ring that can grant its wearer extraordinary abilities. Lethem presents a time and place (Brooklyn during the 1970s) so real that his descriptions feel as if they are conveyed through a documentarian’s lens. He then injects an element of magical realism into this familiar world. As in Kunzru, the magical realism serves to highlight questions, though here they are more personal. Instead of an unknowable higher power, Dylan Ebdus searches for personal meaning and the answers to questions posed by the events and relationships of his childhood. Lethem employs the ring in a symbolic manner to illustrate how and why these events and relationships haunt Dylan into adulthood.
Dylan, like myself, grows up as a comic book-obsessed child of the 1970s. The ultimate wish fulfillment for such a child is to discover that not only can a man fly (evoking the Christopher Reeve Superman tagline—You Will Believe A Man Can Fly) but also being granted access to super powers oneself. Introducing the ring immediately amplifies the mystique about Dylan’s childhood, “Dylan looked up at the sky himself, pretended he’d seen something move there, a body dart across the cornices, or leap from one side of Dean Street to the other” (Lethem 37). But Dylan’s life isn’t fun and fantasy. Due to his race, he is bullied in school and around the neighborhood; Dylan’s mother abandons him causing his father to withdraw even further into his art. So while the ring and its powers symbolize the amazing possibility of childhood, it also reflects the damage he experiences during it. Lethem doesn’t employ a magical wizard or wise alien race to deliver the magic ring to Dylan, instead he uses a homeless drunk, Aaron X. Doily: “He’s dressed in jeans oiled gray with filth…a bed sheet cape, knotted at the neck just like the kid in Where the Wild Things Are, only stained yellow”. Dylan is not tasked to save the world when Doily crashes to the ground, rather he is solicited for a handout, “Hey, man, you got a dollar, man?” It’s important to note here that unlike Gods Without Men, the validity of the magical realism presented is never in question since multiple characters experience, either directly or indirectly, the powers of the ring. Due to Dylan’s age and anxiety when he first encounters the ring, the reliability of his perception could be called into question. However, Lethem presents clear scenes of Dylan and Mingus witnessing each other exercise the ring’s powers. Also, the multiple instances of ancillary characters being either struck by someone darting through the air or moved by some invisible force accumulate into a preponderance of evidence. So, like Dylan, I accept the both the existence of the ring and its fantastic powers and am much more concerned with the other formative events of his childhood.
Childhood usually marks the initial establishment of one’s identity. Lethem also uses the ring and its changing powers to illustrate Dylan’s continuing struggle with identity. Dylan reminisces late in the novel, “When I was twelve and the ring first came into my hands I believed that flight was the denominator, the bottom line of super hero being”. Despite stating this, Dylan is scared to fly in Brooklyn. Lethem allows the ring to reveal the nature of his characters, “The ring was not a neutral tool. It judged the wearer: Aaron Doily flew drunkenly, and Dylan flew like a coward”. Dylan does not make a very good hero. Because of this fear, he relinquishes the identity of super hero to his best friend Mingus, “Whatever it is flying requires— balance, poise, unhesitation…— he’s apparently got. The flying boy rolls in the air, soars down again, leading with his knuckles. He’s wearing a sewn white mask too…open at the top to vent his Afro to the air, like Marvel’s Black Goliath”. Mingus’s success with the ring also seems to suggest how race and neighborhood shape identity. Mingus is African-American and despite being born into affluence, he acclimates to the roughness of a pre-gentrified Brooklyn in a way Dylan never does.
Years later, living in California, Dylan dons the ring again after he is almost mugged, “The ring had changed…The ring wasn’t drawn to the air—that part of it was dead. Now it didn’t confer flying, but something else. My hand was invisible. So was the rest of me…” Dylan is still haunted by his past— estranged from Mingus, the relationship with his father grown more distant, his mother still gone. The ring has judged its wearer once more. Its new power symbolizes Dylan’s inability to reconcile with his past and establish a solid identity and sense of self.
The versatility of magical realism is also evident when Lethem employs the ring in its most traditional symbolic manner—as a representation of the seal or bond of a relationship. The deepest relationship Dylan experiences in the novel is with Mingus. He does not initially share the news of the ring with his best friend. He does so only after they become physically intimate as young teens, “Ten minutes later, sputtering into one another’s fists while Sly’s whole band groaned Que sera, sera…they were sealed by it as a lump of wax seals an envelope…he could tell Mingus about the ring”. The sexual act advances the relationship and Dylan de facto places the ring upon Mingus’ finger, sharing (and later ceding) the role of superhero to him. When they grow estranged once Dylan is in a private high school and Mingus descends further into drug use, the ring becomes a divorce settlement, a way for Dylan to ease the guilt he feels for distancing himself away from Mingus. And later, as Dylan is about to leave Brooklyn for college and Mingus needs money for a drug deal, Dylan offers to buy the ring, “Mingus’ laugh was bitter. It was as if Dylan had asked to buy their friendship back, all their secrets with it”. Both boys use the ring as a bargaining chip, the manifestation of their broken relationship.
When Lethem returns to the ring years later, Dylan is in his thirties and still has relationship issues. He is in the middle of a fight with his girlfriend, who spots it sitting on a shelf during their argument, “You live in the past, Dylan. I’m sick of your secrets…Were you once married? I wouldn’t even know…Your childhood is some privileged sanctuary you live in all the time, instead of here with me”. Abby, his girlfriend, is essentially correct. Mingus was both secret lover and best friend to Dylan. Lethem uses the ring again to represent Dylan’s shattered relationship with Mingus as well as all the childhood memories that still trouble him and impede his ability to connect with others in adulthood.
The last act Dylan performs with the ring condemns his childhood bully, Robert Wolfork, to death. While in jail, Mingus refuses Dylan’s offer of the ring as means of escape and asks him to bring it to Wolfork. Dylan does not disclose to Wolfork that the ring now grants its wearer invisibility and not the power of flight, so Wolfork falls to his death when he leaps from a tower. The ring seems to bear the sum of Dylan’s rage over every childhood misfortune, every schoolyard intimidation and beating. Instead of salvation, the ring is an instrument of final revenge and now lost forever.
Late in the novel, Dylan recounts a time years earlier listening to music while driving with his father. The lyrics of one song make him ponder middle spaces, “We all pined for those middle spaces, those summer hours…when a top-to-bottom burner blazed through a subway station…when schoolyard turntables were powered by a cord run from a streetlamp, when juice just flowed”. Lethem then connects this musing to the empty “middle” space a ring encompasses as Dylan states, “I’d been pushed out like a blind finger to probe for a non-existent space, a whiteboy integrating public schools which were just then being abandoned, which were becoming rehearsals for prison”. As in Kunzru, there are still unanswered questions at the end of the novel. Dylan has yet to attain the resolution he longs for, though it seems evident that he, at least, recognizes that it will not be found in Aaron X. Doily’s magic ring or the comic book fantasies and childhood memories the ring symbolized.
In Friendswood, Rene Steinke’s employs an even more limited form of magical realism—Willa, a sixteen year-old girl, experiences increasingly disturbing visions. Since no other characters are privy to these visions, their validity remain in question throughout the novel. Steinke uses both the visions and their potential origins to generate questions that underscore larger elements of the overall narrative. The two central plotlines concern the past impact and continued threat of toxic waste in the titular town of Friendswood, Texas and the sexual assault on Willa by several boys in her high school. The question of whether either or both events are the possible catalysts for the visions creates additional tension for the reader as the novel unfolds. Also, an “end of days” brand of Christianity permeates the lives and attitudes of the residents of Friendswood. After being raped, Willa’s visions take the form of biblical beasts of the apocalypse. Steinke’s juxtaposition of these visions alongside the manner in which the town’s residents react to the assault on Willa raises questions regarding the actual role of faith in the town.
Willa’s visions are introduced early in the novel just after a hurricane has hit town: “She’d seen…an old man in a black cowboy hate calmly sucking on a cigarette as the wind lashed through the trees, his legs cycling in a haze of silver just before he evaporated… she’d seen a shotgun hovering near the ceiling darkness, turning…” We learn quickly that their occurrence is recent, “This extra sight was a weird new ability like double-jointedness, come late to her late in the summer, but she didn’t know if it was real”. As in Kunzru, timing and placement of the magical realism is crucial. In the brief sections prior to Willa’s introduction, we meet Lee Knowles and learn that fourteen years prior, she lost her daughter, Jess, to cancer likely caused by toxic waste. Lee is now on a crusade to prevent a real estate development going up in Friendswood on a site she believes is also contaminated. Steinke then reveals that the hurricane has dislodged several containers of toxic waste at the site, “For years, the container had been safe down there, but now the land has excreted it, the way coffins sometimes came back up in a flood”. As the specter of cancer already looms over the area residents, my initial inference if that a brain tumor might be the cause of Willa’s visions which immediately heightens my emotional investment in her character.
Steinke creates further parallel between Willa and Lee’s deceased daughter when Lee and Willa first cross paths at a party, “Lee caught another echo of Jess, this time in Willa’s voice”. Willa also sees a similarity, “She’d heard her parents talking that night about how Lee Knowles’s daughter had died…She’d died when she was only sixteen, the age Willa would be in June”. When Willa seeks medical care for a rash at the doctor’s office where Lee works, further connection to Jess is suggested, “And it was worrisome that she had the headaches with the rash. How many brain tumors had she recorded in Jess’s high school class alone? Three. But then again, Lee imagined cancer everywhere now…” Just as the past plight of Judy in Gods Without Men increases the dramatic tension surrounding Raj in that novel’s present, Steinke juxtaposes the fate of Jess with the possible danger facing Willa. Also, the increasing number of characters to succumb to illness as the novel progresses—Lee’s ex-husband is diagnosed with lung cancer, students become ill after Lee detonates the explosive in Banes Field—further suggests that the visions may be cancer-related and also serves to elevate the urgency of Lee’s mission to stop the development at Banes Field.
The other interesting choice by Steinke is that the visions appear before Willa is raped, otherwise a psychological catalyst for the visions may be assumed (though there is no evidence to completely the dismiss the possibility). However, it is only after the rape that Willa’s visions take the form of apocalyptic images: “Below the table, near the floor something emerged from the white, its horns short and conical, the face a lamb’s…When it opened its mouth, maggots crawled around the tiny body of a dead mouse”; And also: “In the corner of her room emerged a shadow the size of a large dog… But this beast’s head sprouted a tangled, mangy lion’s mane, crawling with worms”. One explanation for the change might be that these visions spring from a supernatural source and a biblical apocalypse is imminent. Willa’s father points to current day events to imply this: “He’d point to the headlines and say, “See that?” Or he’d erupt from the deep cushion of his easy chair in front of the television and say, “Of course that’s what happened. It’s all in Scripture. After the battle, the Jews take Jerusalem. The Rapture’s coming”. However, it is just as likely that the increasingly horrifying nature of the visions symbolize the trauma of Willa’s sexual assault and how she internalizes the attack as the end of the word. Even prior to the assault, Willa experiences a vision seemingly precipitated by shame over a sexual experience. Willa lies on her bed and begins to masturbate: “Then just above her, the shapes of light swept away, and she saw an old fashioned camera pressing itself through the plaster, the lens extending like a blunt nose. The flash popped, and the light fashioned a lion’s mane, a sharp-toothed open mouth. She pulled her hand out of her jeans”. If the visions are manifestations rooted in Willa’s religious beliefs, then her faith seems more a source of unwarranted guilt and further anxiety rather than one of comfort in the time of need.
While Kunzru emphasized the unknowable aspect of “the face of God,” Steinke’s characters profess a more concrete connection to God and scripture. But despite the pervasiveness of faith in this town, most of the characters behave poorly. They lie and bully and put people’s lives in danger for personal profit. They rape. When Willa seeks out her pastor for solace and guidance in regards to both the rape and her visions, she finds neither, “Look inside yourself and find out what was it that made you go to that party…it sounds to me like demons are giving you those signs, and if you’ll look closely, you’ll see that. Where are those demons coming from?”. The pastor’s hypocrisy is clear when Willa suggests that the Lord is speaking through her: “Now, Willa, don’t you think if Jesus was coming back this very minute, that he wouldn’t be keeping the signs secret, just showing them to a teenage girl”. Since in Christian faith Jesus was born to a teenage Mary, the pastor’s comments are ridiculous to the point of ignorance. Hal, the father of the Cully— one of the boys that raped Willa, routinely tapes scripture to the dashboard of his car for professional and personal inspiration. Yet after Cully confesses his involvement in the rape, Hal’s only words of advice are, “Ask God for forgiveness and move on”. The behavior of these characters along with the frightening and deriding nature of Willa’s continued visions suggest a faith of hypocrisy, more concerned with images of fire and brimstone than providing solace or moral compass for its believers.
By the conclusion of the novel, most of the wicked are punished to some degree. Willa spies the beasts of her visions one last time, but now she turns from them to take some solace in nature, “She gazed through their shapes to the oak tree, saw how it would grow, how the leaves would bud and spread into green hands, the branches rivered into the air”. When she looks back to see if the beasts are still there: “A gray rabbit hopped through the dandelions, and wings flapped in the branches above her. When she looked back at the beasts, the wind had erased them”. Nature seems to displace the threat of the apocalyptic visions. This concept has been alluded to prior in the novel when Willa’s friend Dani says to her, “You know what I’d do if I heard the world was ending tomorrow?… I’d plant a goddamn tree”. By the end of the novel, even Hal appears to find meaning and purpose from a more internal source that also evokes the natural world, “Hal had felt forsaken, but had wanted not to give into despair like some homeless person… He would learn patience, and teach it to Cully. Every day he’d tend to things, and he’d watch these seeds, these fruits, these branches grow”. As in Kunzru, no final answers are provided. The status of Willa’s health, the true source of her visions, and whether the visions will return all remain a mystery. As the novel concludes, Willa witnesses, “A motel sign at the end of the street lit up its blue neon letters, but she could just see the edge of it, which said STAY”. Likely there is nothing magical about this, but it is much better advice than any message provided by her visions.
In his essay “Magical Realism in Spanish America” Luis Leal states, “In magical realism the writer confronts reality and tries to untangle it, to discover what is mysterious in things, in life, in human acts”. I would offer a companion statement to Leal and assert that the writers I’ve examined, in fact, use magical realism to discover, confront, and untangle what is mysterious in things, in life, in human acts. These writers employ magical realism with the same resourcefulness as characterization, conflict, metaphor and other literary devices to reinforce themes and raise questions about human behavior in their novels. Magical realism has proven to be a versatile element of their craft, able to be applied in varying quantities and in myriad configurations. Kunzru inserts a measured magical realism into targeted moments of his narrative to emphasize humanity’s struggle with that which remains unknowable. Garcia Marquez infuses his work with a pervasive magical realism of exaggeration, creating a world where the unlikeliest of love stories, while not guaranteed, is not only possible but also probable. Lethem and Steinke both employ a more limited variety of magical realism. Lethem uses a magical ring, a tangible object firmly part of the real world, to symbolize all the internal struggles the main character battles from childhood through his adult life. Conversely, Steinke presents a character tormented by mysterious personal visions that illustrate the trauma the external world inflicts on her. Each writer uses magical realism, not to depict an alternate reality, but rather to better illustrate a reality familiar to many readers—a reality whose inhabitants struggle with questions about the existence of a higher power, the meaning of life, love, identity, faith, and responsibility to one another.
Kunzru, Hari. Gods Without Men. New York, NY, United States: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2013. Print.
Leal, Luis. “Magical Realism in Spanish America.” Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Eds. Wendy B. Faris and Lois Parkinson Zamora. 2nd ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 1995. Print.
Lethem, Jonathan. The Fortress of Solitude: A Novel. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2004. Print.
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia, et al. Love in the Time of Cholera. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. Print.
Steinke, Rene. Friendswood: A Novel. New York, NY, United States: Hudson Street Press (an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc), 2015. Print
About the Author:
Anthony Ausiello is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing-Fiction at Fairleigh Dickinson University and is a reader for the The Literary Review. His work has appeared in NoiseMedium, The East Bay Review, and Rat’s Ass Review. Anthony also received a BA in English from The Pennsylvania State University. Between PSU and FDU, Anthony successfully navigated through corporate America for almost two decades before departing to search for the Promised Land. He lives happily in Westfield, NJ with his wife, Talia, and children, Anya and Eli.