Magical Realism: The Forgotten Genre

Many readers know about fantasy fiction. Paranormal and supernatural tales are burning up the charts. Few people realize that there is a sister genre, nestled in the cracks of literature: Magical Realism.

Step into the Way-Back-Machine with me to my middle school. There, my Spanish teacher, a burly Brazilian bodybuilder, introduced me to the genre. It was no mistake, as the concept was born in Latin America. The concept of these stories is a perfectly normal, rational world, but with one magical element.

In magical realisms, the common and mundane are transformed into the amazing and unreal. It’s a genre of surprises. Time is fluid, pulling the reader into the unusual.
Need some examples? How about Like Water for Chocolate? The novel by Laura Esquivel shows the domestic life of women in a small town. Yet the protagonist, Tita, can’t achieve happiness because of her mother. She imbues her emotions into the food she makes. Those that partake of her delicacies, enact those emotions for her. For example, Tita suffers from forbidden love, and she infuses this emotion into a wedding cake. The guests to eat the cake, all suffer from severe longing.
Here’s a clip from Tita’s magical meal.

Another perfect example is Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1912). Here an office worker awakes one day to discover that he’s been transformed into a cockroach. His family must then deal with his new insect form.

A comic adaptation of Metamorphosis that I adore.

A comic adaptation of Metamorphosis that I adore.

Many movies also fall into the magical realism arena, such as: Being John Malkovich, Big Fish, Black Swan, City of Angels, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Many fantasy writers scoff at the idea that this is a unique genre, saying that magical realism is simply another name for fantasy fiction.

Gene Wolfe stated, “magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish,” and Terry Pratchett said magic realism “is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy.” Yet there are differences. Most notably the use of

antinomy, or the simultaneous presence of two conflicting codes. When you read fantasy, there’s an internal logic, rules, to the universe. In magical realism key events have no logical explanation. Why can Tita infuse food with emotion? There is no reason. She just can.

It’s this element that so fascinates me. In a world where every motivation needs to be explained and teased apart, it’s a relief to say it happened just because. Magical realism includes events that don’t fit into any world, anywhere.

Gabriel García Márquez, a Colombian writer, uses of magical realism to blend reality and fantasy so that the reader can’t tell the difference. In his story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”,  an angel falls to the Earth because of a violent rainstorm. The reality of the situation is never doubted. Although the angel is a magical being, he is treated in a realistic way. Here’s the start to the story.
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings: A Tale For Children
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench. The world had been sad since Tuesday. Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish. The light was so weak at noon that when Pelayo was coming back to the house after throwing away the crabs, it was hard for him to see what it was that was moving and groaning in the rear of the courtyard. He had to go very close to see that it was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings.
Frightened by that nightmare, Pelayo ran to get Elisenda, his wife, who was putting compresses on the sick child, and he took her to the rear of the courtyard. They both looked at the fallen body with a mute stupor. He was dressed like a ragpicker. There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth, and his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather took away and sense of grandeur he might have had. His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked were forever entangled in the mud. They looked at him so long and so closely that Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar. Then they dared speak to him, and he answered in an incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor’s voice. That was how they skipped over the inconvenience of the wings and quite intelligently concluded that he was a lonely castaway from some foreign ship wrecked by the storm. And yet, they called in a neighbor woman who knew everything about life and death to see him, and all she needed was one look to show them their mistake.
For the full text, visit here.

Surreal Picture Story

I’ve recently become addicted to the website Retronaut. Never heard of it? You should. It posts all sorts of strange and quirky photos from the past. Recently, I came across some very bizarre photos. Seeing them, my mind began to spin out a story.

Someone has poisoned the watermelon. Hungry kids, desperate to beat the summer heat, recoil at the hideous taste. But there is a side effect. Eating the tainted watermelon transforms you…

You shrink down to chicken size. As well as yearn for the taste of tobacco. Unfortunately, all that smoking only accelerates the effects of the shrinkage. It keeps going until…

The only place left to hide is between the buttocks of dapper gentlemen on baseball fields. But beware, these men are actually there to trap the tiny kids. Once captured, each tiny tot is locked up…

There kids will be rehabilitated so they can live happy lives here in the good ole USA.

Now everyone is happy.

Tim Kane

The Seven and a Half Rules Writer’s Shouldn’t Need

Writing is a confusingly simple process of transcribing motives and plot points into physical form. Here are some tips.

Rule 1
You’ll need a pencil or a pen. Perhaps charcoal or crayons are your flair. Something to make the interior screams of your brain visible to the masses.

Rule 2
Paper is the choice of four out of five writers. However, don’t turn a cold shoulder to bark, bedsheets or cave walls. All excellent media.

Rule 3
Fortify yourself with stimulants. All that creativity can drain on your soul. I recommend chocolate and coffee. But that’s just me.

Rule 4
Sometimes you don’t feel like writing. You stare at the paper (or computer screen if you’re the techno-type) and nothing comes. Just pure white. Minutes slip by and your mind reels. Congratulations, you’re meditating. Some people pay big money for that kind of thing.

Rule 5
A diary or a journal can be a tremendous place to let your innermost turmoil spill on to the page. Just be sure to lock that book up. Wouldn’t want any of those secrets leaking into your writerly work.

Rule 6
Don’t forget to add characters. I hear those are important to your writing. Unless you’re genre, then ignore them and plot, plot, plot.

Rule 7
Set your story someplace interesting. Not a bathroom or a school. Maybe a jungle or the DMV waiting line. Those places are always chock full of suspense.

Rule 7 and a half
Be sure to have a compelling ending.

Write on fellow wordsmiths.

Tim Kane

C: Terrible Consonant

No. How Can I say that viCious letter — terrible Consonant? C! No, I Can’t go on anymore denying its horrid power over me. Just to look at its Curved Crooked from brings the bile up from my stomach. Look how it jests at me, thrusting its points out side-like, as if to leap in a headlong rush, impaling hapless vowels on it’s vertiCes. No. No. I have written it too:

There stands the enemy of all that I am—my foe, my adversary, the Culmination of all that is wrong with the world. You don’t believe me? You say, “How Could such a benign letter be the Cause?” You fool. I say, you blind ignorant babe. You have been wooed by its innoCuous yet Covert pretense. Know now that C is a killer. Yes, turn your baCk, and nothing will stop the slaughter. Don’t let your apathy bloCk you from truly examining—finally seeing—the beast from the lamb. Why do we trust it? It seems too inCredible, but we do. I shall tell you, for I have taken its existenCe to heart. I shall reveal the Codex that is its mystery. I will not stop until C has been blotted from the alphabet. Gone.

C’s seCret lies in its ability to Camouflage itself in apparent usefulness. I first disCovered this while writing. Sent and Cent, though spelled differently, have the same pronunCiation. But C also bolsters a hard sound… Yes, yes, I know. This shouldn’t be, but look for yourself: Caught, Cat, Carpet. They all seem so unique, until you remember (as I did) that K has the same sound. Why not spell these words like so: kaught, kat, karpet. This insidious letter has weaseled its own spaCe in the alphabet where none was needed. Its pillage of words ends here!

Soon after I disCovered these horrid faCts, C took its revenge. It Came to me in my sleep: cccccCCCCcCCccCcCccCCc. Hissing and Clucking at me until I thought my brain would burst. Repeating in CyCliC CyCles, revolving and tightening about my throat until I Could no longer scream. But a deep strength, drawn from a respeCt for Consonants and vowels of all kinds rose up in me. I grabbed C by its outstretched hooks. My right hand bleed from the gashes. I wrestled it, holding and twisting until I nearly lost ConsCiousness. Turning it up, I finally rendered the letter into an inert U.

YoU are dead! Finally dead. And now the alphabet will be safe from yoUr sharp points and tongUe. But wait, am I really rid of yoU? No… not yoU again. Not U!

Tim Kane

Have a Blue Fish Day (Using Surrealism in Your Writing)

When I was younger, sometimes I would declare that such and such a day was a blue fish day, meaning it had that ethereal quality as if waking from a dream.

What I later learned, was that I was utilizing the the paranoiac-critical method to unlock my unconscious mind. It might just sound like I made those words up. I didn’t. Salvador Dalí did. He was fascinated by the unconscious mind and dreams. (He plagued Freud with letters begging for an audience).

Paranoiac-Critical Method
Typically we’re taught to associate rational cause and effect explanations to events in our lives. Dalí wanted the reverse. A sort of stream of consciousness where irrational thoughts could be attached to events. He described the paranoiac-critical method as a “spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectivity of the associations and interpretations of delirious phenomena.”

Ballerina in a Death's Head is an example of the paranoiac-critical method. Do you see a skull or a ballerina?

In short, this is the ability of the viewer to perceive multiple images within the same configuration. All of us practice the paranoiac-critical method each time we gaze up at clouds in the sky and imagine different shapes. In fact all those sighting of Jesus on a slice of toast or a stucco wall are simply the Paranoid Critical Method in action.

A great introduction to Dalí and the whole surrealist world comes in the short film “The Death of Salvador Dalí.”

But you don’t have to sit idly by to create these associations. There are certain games you can play to help activate this irrational side of your brain.

Exquisite Corpse
This is a game played often by the Surrealists. In this, each person writes part of a sentence, and then folds the paper over so that the next person has no idea what was written. In this fashion, a collage of words creates a bizarre sentence. The name derives from the first playing of the game: “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.” (“The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine.”)

The game was also played with pictures. One person might draw the head and then fold the paper over so that only a few connecting lines could be seen. This would continue until a total figure had been created.

4-part Corpse drawing; Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, Joan Miro, Max Morise

Cut Ups
It seems the surrealists did have their limit as to what they’d accept. At a surrealist rally in the 1920s Tristan Tzara built a poem from scratch by pulling words out of a hat. A riot broke out and wrecked the theater. Andrè Breton expelled Tristan Tzara from the movement.

Not until forty years later did this technique reemerge. Brion Gysin, a painter and writer, noticed that he’d sliced though the New York Herald Tribune on his cutting board. The cut sections lined up and could be read across. He loved the idea so much that he fashioned and essay called, Minutes to Go. Here’s an excerpt.

“Sickle moon terror nails replica in tin ginsberg. Replicas of Squareville — grey piebald pigeons — pointedly questioned, mimic each other.”

I used this technique to write the opening line to my first published short story. I was stuck and wanted a jarring image to pull the reader in. Sitting in a coffee shop, I picked up the newspaper and started tearing (I didn’t have scissors). I had to do two or three tries until something decent came up, but I think you’ll agree, the technique works.

Unfamiliar puddles of light lurked in the crevices like cancer.

So the next time you’re stuck with a scene or a character or even an idea, turn to the Surrealists for help. As your rational brain gets stuck in rut, unwilling to deliver words on the page, kick it in the but by unlocking your irrational side. Make your day a blue fish day and see what happens.

Tim Kane