Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Missing Link Between Realistic Fiction and Magical Realism

I have magical realism on the brain thanks to a YA novel I'm working on (maybe "wrestling into submission" is more accurate).   I think "magical realism" is a modern term, coined in reference to Latin American and Caribbean literature.  In college, Wilson Harris' GUYANA QUARTET made quite an impression on me for its immersion in dream imagery.  Often the examples cited are modern works by authors such as Neil Gaiman or Toni Morrison.    Still, the genre is so deeply woven with the visions of dreams and myths and fairytales that I can't help thinking there are older examples to explore.  A  fellow writer once told me Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND fit the magical realism genre.  I reread it and was struck by how episodic the plot was.  Almost too dreamlike, the very issue I've run into on my own piece.

In the midst of all this contemplation, it dawned on me that there is a "missing link" literature between realistic fiction and magical realism.  You could call it "heightened realism."  I think of two images from Dickens that illustrate this idea.  The first, and perhaps most famous, is Miss Havisham's wedding cake in GREAT EXPECTATIONS:

Certain wintry branches of candles on the high chimney-piece faintly lighted the chamber, or, it would be more expressive to say, faintly troubled its darkness. It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing in it was covered with dust and mould, and dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was a table with a long tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks stopped all together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite indistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies run home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.
This is just a "slice" of the cake (maybe my "Moldy Leftovers" post sent my mind down this road), but it's an excellent illustration of what I'm talking about.  There's no magic involved here, but the heightened, nightmarish quality of the image goes beyond the bounds of reality.  Miss Havisham herself, and all her surroundings, follow a similar vein.

The second Dickens image that came to mind was from LITTLE DORRIT.  It is the sudden collapse of the Clennam House, near the end of the novel, caused not by earthquake or natural disaster but seemingly out of the blue after a lifetime of lies and deceit:
In one swift instant the old house was before them, with the manlying smoking in the window; another thundering sound, and itheaved, surged outward, opened asunder in fifty places, collapsed,and fell.  Deafened by the noise, stifled, choked, and blinded bythe dust, they hid their faces and stood rooted to the spot.  Thedust storm, driving between them and the placid sky, parted for amoment and showed them the stars.  As they looked up, wildly cryingfor help, the great pile of chimneys, which was then alone leftstanding like a tower in a whirlwind, rocked, broke, and haileditself down upon the heap of ruin, as if every tumbling fragmentwere intent on burying the crushed wretch deeper. 
In both of these examples, Dickens unabashedly embraces the metaphorical potency of his images and places it outside the boundaries of reality by heightening the reality to a nightmarish level.

Some of the best, most intense moments in fiction, for me, do this, especially when it comes to disturbing images.  Melville's MOBY DICK is another great example, full of realistic events that are given a metaphorical and surreal import through mood, tone, exaggeration.  The final images of that novel still haunt me.  

So, with Halloween coming up, perhaps it's time to think about creating haunting, potent images through heightened reality.  Consider letting the old masters be your guides.

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