Magical realism

David Eide – Opinion Columnist

I used to struggle to get into realistic fiction. It used to seem like such a pointless genre to me, after all, why would I want to read or watch people live completely standard lives when I’m already living one. I just didn’t see what they added to my life. My opinions have evolved a great deal since then and I am a lot more open to the genre now, but I still sometimes struggle with realistic fiction. However, one subgenre in particular had a major influence on my willingness to delve deeper into realistic or literary fiction, namely magical realism.
Magical realism is a loose term that has been applied to a number of distinct works or movements. In general, it has come to mean a work that paints a standard, mundane setting that nevertheless has undercurrents of the supernatural throughout it which are not the ultimate focus of the work. This is in contrast to standard fantasy which usually takes place in a fantastical world where magic is commonplace and makes up a large part of the work.
Of course, there is also a sliding scale at work, with some magical realist works having a great deal of magic present while others only have a small bit. While there are antecedents in earlier literature, magical realism as a true literary movement has its origins in 1920s and 1930s Latin America with authors like Jorge Luis Borges. In time however, magical realism spread from Latin America and now is a major presence in world literature. Indeed, some of the most well-regarded authors of the last 50 years could be argued to have written magical realist fiction and the ideas of magical realism have even become integrated into other mediums such as film or video games.
My first introduction to magical realism came in high school with “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman which you may know from the recent television adaptation that aired on Starz. The book blends together many ancient mythologies such as Norse and Egyptian and puts them into conflict with modern American life, depicting a clash between old and new in a unique manner. I loved “American Gods” and to this day it remains one of my favorite books. Indeed, a lot of Gaiman’s bibliography consists of magical realism and I would heartily recommend books like “Neverwhere” or “American Gods” as a good starting point for the genre. I have since read many other books featuring magical realist aspects, almost all of which I have enjoyed to some extent or another.
These books include “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders, and “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie. These books highlight the wide variety of situations magical realism can be applied to, some like “Beloved” feature ghosts to represent the horror of slavery while Midnight’s Children uses supernatural elements to deal with the trauma of the partition of India. One of my all-time favorite works utilizing magical realism is “A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James which is a mostly grounded novel dealing with the attempted assassination of Bob Marley except for the key fact that its narrator is the ghost of a murdered politician.
Magical realism has also begun to appear in other mediums besides literature. Of course, some caveats may apply, magical realism isn’t really recognized within film analysis to the same extent that it is in book analysis. However, despite this, magic realist elements have been making their way into films for many years with some of the best movies of the recent years having featured magical realism. For instance, the hit film Encanto derives its entire premise from magical realism, featuring a family who has been granted mystical gifts for mysterious reasons in an otherwise grounded setting.
Indeed, the films setting of Colombia is in itself a reference to the Latin American roots of the genre. Other movies like Being John Malkovich or Donnie Darko also feature fantastic themes without becoming fantasy and thus fit well into the category of magical realism. Some independent video games also make use of the conventions of the genre such as Kentucky Route Zero or What Remains of Edith Finch which indicates to me that the genre has quite a wide reach these days.
To me the appeal of magical realism is that it is capturing the most important aspects of reality while still being more vivid than standard realistic fiction. While I do enjoy Sci-Fi and Fantasy, I’ve often found that they often cannot quite capture the same range of emotions that magical realism is able to. I think that magical realism is able to utilize the fantastical elements to better explore the themes of the work. As a consequence of this, I find the genre as a whole to be much more engaging than other types of realistic fiction and more meaningful than fantasy or science fiction.
I would strongly recommend any of the pieces of media I have mentioned in this article to those who have struggled to engage with “realistic” fiction as I think they might it find more appealing. Ever since I had to my introduction to magical realism with “American Gods”, I have had nothing but good experiences with the genre and I think that you will too. So, the next time you’re in the library ask the librarian if they know any good magical realist books and you might just find your new favorite book, I sure did.