Sunday, June 2, 2013

Magical Realism In Literature - Does it Work?


When and how should authors ask us to suspend disbelief?


Not long ago, I read the book Jacob's Folly by Rebecca Miller. About half of the story takes place in 21st century New York. The other half takes place in 18th century France. Bringing this all together is the narrator, who is a fly. But he is no ordinary fly. He lived as a man in France and now his soul has been brought back and into the lives of two, modern-day people.  

Yes, I know. You're already thinking "oy vey!" But I assure you, this isn't as "oy vey" as you might think, however much it should be.

Usually, when I read books like this, I recalled the incident of the creative writing class described in author John Irving's Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. The class assignment was to write about a meal. One student writes his story from the viewpoint of the spoon. Only Irving and one other student don't like this. When Irving asks that student why, he says "I am not a spoon." No, we are not spoons, and it seems absurd to think that readers can connect with a narrator that is so disconnected to our reality.

This was the same criticism I had for Joanne Harris' book Blackberry Wine, in which she has a bottle of 1962 Fleurie talking to us in the opening chapter.  Thankfully, she seldom came back to the wine narration after that first chapter. Mainly, she inserted this as a way to justify using the first person omnipresent POV (or in this case, first insect omnipresent).

Of course, both spoons and bottles of wine are inanimate objects. On the other hand, a fly is a living thing, albeit an insect. And there are many books (including ones not written for children) that use non-humans as their narrators. The two that immediately come to mind are Watership Down and Animal Farm. These are both worthy literary precedents for what Miller is trying to achieve here.

Ah, but there is a difference. In both those these classic cases, all of the characters were animals. Here we have a fly mixing with homo-sapiens. And what makes this all the more unusual is that this fly was once a human. This brings us to the concepts of reincarnation and transmigration of souls, which are even more difficult things to include in a novel.

This notion of taking the impossible (or improbable) and weaving it with stark reality is what the genre of 'magical realism' is all about. We have come to accept this in famous authors such as Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison and Joanne Harris. Why then, should we discount this in an author who is less famous?

The point is, Miller takes us to the edge of reality and asks us to use things we probably cannot (or are even unwilling to) believe in to keep us from falling into the abyss of total disbelief. And she does it all for the sake of literally writing as a "fly on the wall." That may seem to you to be a mechanic that's been used just to be clever, but I actually liked it.

(Only after reading this book did I find out that Rebecca Miller is the daughter of the playwright Arthur Miller and is also married to actor Daniel Day-Lewis.)