Magic words

April 27, 2011

Magic realism has been one of my favorite genres for years. I’m not sure what initially turned me on to it, but stories like Aimee Bender’s “Tiger Mending” and Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Ceiling” have fueled my enthusiasm.

Scholar Scott Simkins describes magic realism as a genre that creates a reality “in which the relation between incidents, characters, and setting could not be based upon or justified by their status within the physical world or their normal acceptance by bourgeois mentality.” Yah, he does a better job than I could. Basically, I love magic realism because it dares to express realities deeper than those we see in the material world. It makes the intangible tangible without losing the wonder and mystery of the universe and human experience.

Lately I have been reading Jorge Luis Borges’ collection of short stories, Labyrinths, for one of my classes. Initially, I loved the stories. They challenged me and made me want to explore Borges’ created worlds and learn something from them. But after reading several more of his stories, I started to catch on to a pattern. Every story, while beautifully written, ends with the same sort of mind-flipping trick (it was all a dream, the narrator isn’t who he thinks he is, etc.). I came to expect these Inception-like plot twists, and they began to frustrate me. I found myself wondering if Borges was trying to show me a truer truth by deconstructing my view of reality, or if he was just trying to entertain me by formulaically plugging in surprise endings to his stories.

Entertainment is good, but only in the moment. When I read People magazine, I am happy to have something pass the time, but that’s all it does. Since it doesn’t carry over into the way I live my life, I think it’s probably a waste of time (though I’m definitely not saying I never indulge).

I wasn’t until a class discussion that I realized I’m not giving Borges nearly enough credit if I think his stories are only meant to entertain. It took a few people to comment on how they didn’t really connect with Borges’ stories for me to realize how much I did connect with them. Despite not really understanding the big picture of any of his pieces, it is the magic of Borges’ sentences—the passing descriptions or the momentary reflections of a character—that convince me there is much more to his writing than I realize. Though the “connection” to the work I feel is vague and difficult to verbalize, I know Borges has taught me something.

And reading probably the most famous work of magic realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, is helping me learn how to decipher the magic (or perhaps embrace the undecipherable). I tried to read Marquez’s masterpiece years ago but quit somewhere along the way because I kept confusing characters (this time, I keep a handy-dandy list as a bookmark so I can actually follow what is going on). Like with Borges, I am finding Marquez’s sentences more meaningful than the narrative itself, but I’m almost positive that’s because I don’t understand the big picture yet (I’m only about one fifth of the way through). Still, I have loved reading the book so far, and I am determined to stick with it this time.

p.s. Two beautiful sentences.

Borges on surprises:

“Years of solitude had taught him that, in one’s memory, all days tend to be the same, but that there is not a day, not even in jail or in the hospital, which does not bring surprises, which is not a translucent network of minimal surprises.” (The Waiting)

Marquez on eating dirt:

“The handfuls of earth made the only man who deserved that show of degradation less remote and more certain, as if the ground he walked on with his fine patent leather boots in another part of the world were transmitting to her the weight and the temperature of his blood in a mineral savor that left a harsh aftertaste in her mouth and a sediment of peace in her heart.” (One Hundred Years of Solitude)