As modern man becomes more and more convinced that God doesn't exist and that what we see is all there is, his writing focuses more and more on the mundane, the prosaic, and the literal. If the supernatural elements of older genres and literary forms are acknowledged at all it's usually in an attempt at irony or outright dismissal. Authors seem to think they've grown more mature than their predecessors, and that to be effective they need only deal in the world of external verities.
Yet man is a spiritual being, and he can deny his soul only so long. This is probably especially true for writers, whose livelihood requires them to investigate and reflect on the nature of existence more than most vocations require. The writer, of course, is no more inherently spiritual than the dentist or the plumber, but his job is to comment on the human experience having acheived a level of authority (or at least confidence) through observation, learning, and thought.
To remove the spiritual element from one's writing, then, is to compromise one's authority as an observer and philosopher, and to leave one's writing bland and shallow. Ironically, a lot of postmodern authors try to alleviate this shallowness by messing with literary forms and simply juggling content around to trick readers into thinking the books are original and unique. One of the superstars of this tactic is Dave Eggers, whose A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius seeks to be ironic, but the irony is self-referential and fails to make any meaningful statement.
More honest writers simply bury readers in detail. Henry James was an early master of this approach, but his accolytes are legion and they've ensconced themselves throughout the literary world. Still, they aren't the only ones out there, and a movement that began in the 20th century has continued to grow and remains a powerful force, if a little weakened in virtue of having been co-opted by atheists. The genre is magic realism, and it's at once one of the most enjoyable and most meaningful of literary genres, especially those of recent origin.
Magic realism is pretty much what it sounds like: fiction written in this style presents a normal, even prosaic, setting into which the author nonchalantly adds in elements of magic, supernaturalism, or fantasy. It's important that the fantastical elements not be self-conscious; magic and the supernatural are accepted and expected aspects of life within the hermetic world of the novel, short story, or poem in which they appear.
One of the most famous practitioners of this genre is Ray Bradbury, who wrote of Americans living shoulder to shoulder with the weird, the horrific, the strange, and the esoteric. In Something Wicked This Way Comes, two boys discover the nature of evil in the tents of a deranged, supernatural carnival that plants itself right in the middle of their Midwestern existence. Magic realism is seldom undertaken as an escapist genre—instead, it is used to make serious and profound statements.
A lesser-known magic realist is Rudolfo Anaya, a Mexican-American writer whose masterful Bless Me, Ultima tells the story of a young Latino boy trying to choose between the paganism of his friend Florence and the Catholicism of his mother. He finds unlikely help in the form of a bruja, or witch, named Ultima who crosses the lines between fantasy and reality with not so much as a raising of the eyebrows or a shrugging of the shoulders.
Both of these writers came from a Christian context, and whether they believed the doctrines of the ancient faith or not, they were unable to keep it out of their writing. The new wave of magic realists, led by writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Jose Saramago, is decidedly atheist, yet even these writers find themselves unable to extricate themselves from prolonged excursions into the realms of religion, death, and ultimate meaning. They typically rely more on humor than their religiously influenced comrades, and Vonnegut in particular does so with consistently hilarious and awesome results.
On the whole, however, magic realism has remained the province of Christian writers, and those influenced directly by the Christian faith. Whether this is because they're better able to recognize the spiritual nature of human existence, or simply because their imaginations aren't falsely bound by a commitment to empiricism and externality, no one can really say. What is for sure is that, despite its name, magic realist works on the whole deal more honestly with the deep questions of life while retaining a strong element of entertainment frequently lost in modern literature.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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