11/1/2015 – A Jolt of Vertigo
”The best way to think about reality is to get as far away from it as possible.” – Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
I have never been interested in magical realism, or so I’d thought. One Hundred Years of Solitude has sat in my pile of to-read books for almost a decade now, and although I enjoyed Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and his collection of short stories, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, I thought his use of magical realism as metaphor could be a bit gimmicky. I have always written fiction that concentrate on domestic lives, those quiet intersections of reality that ignite into disaster. In his article “Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki,” Matthew Strecher defines magic realism as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe,” and I suppose I always equated magical realism with unicorns and surrealist Dali landscapes (magical realism, after all, is purported to have evolved in Latin America in response to the surrealism movement in art in the 1920s and 1930s).
But, surprisingly, my first two novels rely heavily on magical realism. I have always dug in dark, difficult places in my writing, psychological landscapes even too hard for me to examine without couching it in some alternate place where I could explore it with some protection. My debut novel, The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press 2013) is, on the surface, a historically grounded story that fluctuates between 17th-century Poland, World War II, and 1970s America. And yet the novel is built on a single surrealistic element: the existence of an enchanted herb, burnette saxifrage, that bestows immortal life on those who consume it.
Why muddy a perfectly good realist novel with a fantastical element like that? Because sometimes reality is too constricting. And, as fiction writers, everything is at our disposal. When I was writing The Tide King, I always knew I was writing about loneliness, about our ability to connect as humans, but I wanted to do it in a way that captivated me (and hopefully the reader). What better way to examine loneliness than to create characters who, after eating the herb, are doomed to never connect with anyone, watching loved ones die, centuries pass, unable to experience the necessary transition from life to death?
One could write off my use of magical realism in The Tide King as an isolated event. I hoped to. But it happened again, in my novel The Summer She Was Under Water (forthcoming 2016, Queens Ferry Press). Although on the surface a woman, Samantha, spends a weekend with her dysfunctional family in their cabin on the Susquehanna River, she must confront her brother with the sins of their childhood after she publishes a magic realist novel about a man, Pete, who becomes pregnant. In the “novel-within-the-novel” (don’t get me started on gimmicks), Pete must enlist the help of a mysterious woman to birth the “secret” that is inside him.
Pete’s “pregnancy,” of course, is actually a metaphor for a deep, (literally) incestuous secret, and what he confronts through his journey of labor will free him from his guilt and shame and send him on the long road to growth.
I’ve never been comfortable writing about incest (who is?); but in this way, I felt I was able to let brother and sister re-examine a very painful period in their lives (and perhaps also create distance between the topic and myself, diverting the “is this based on a true story?” question writers often get in response to their work).
In fact, this is perhaps one of the most important reasons why I’ve used magical realism in my work: to explore the darkness in life while inoculating myself from the suggestion that it is my darkness. Because, in the end, reality is always stranger than fiction.
That said, I think magical realism should be used sparingly (ie, with a purpose), and it should always be grounded in the confines of common sense (ie, the “realism” part of magical realism). In the aforementioned, Kafka on the Shore, Nakata, an older man who is unable to read or write as the result of a childhood incident, earns a living by finding lost cats. As it turns out, he can actually communicate with them, in particular a Siamese who likes to quote Puccini operas. Written by a less-skilled wordsmith, a man with a telepathic connection to cats could be completely ridiculous and distract readers from the story, but in this context, the reader is willing to make the leap that Nakata’s brain, deprived of other sources of communication, is able to compensate and rewire and, symbolically, speak to those who want to listen and be heard.
Sure, it’s okay to have flying unicorns in one’s story, but without a frame in reality to ground them, the story becomes merely fantasy. In magical realism, the writer gives the reader a jolt of vertigo, of nausea, before jerking him or her back into a world with which he or she is more familiar, just enough to give that reader the sense of possibilities beyond this one, a ghostly voice in a recording that plays through unheard on repeated listens. And yet, we are forever haunted by the memory, the anticipation of hearing again, that voice, wondering what it was trying to tell us.
Jen Michalski is the author of The Tide King and The Summer She Was Under Water, two collections of fiction, and a collection of novellas. Find her at jenmichalski.com