Wizard of the Pigeons

Wedding in three weeks has completely incapacitated my ability to streng coherent sentences together in a purposeful manner.

I am reading Megan Lindholm, Wizard of the Pigeons. Enjoying it very much. It possesses the realist fantasy qualties of Peter Beagle without his postmodern abandon. Not that I am at all critical of postmodern abandon–but where I’m concerned, its use moves Beagle into the category of postmodern fantasy, whereas I am all gung ho to claim Megan Lindholm for magic realism. Yah magic realism. I should ask the Interfictions people how that reckless categorization fits with their definition. Anyhow, the cover of my 1986 Ace copy (courtesy Erin H) is beautiful, and the writing within is strikingly understated in style and just full of dramatic depth. Wizard is a real tragic figure, one I empathize with deeply.

Going to read more now.

"The Utter Proximity of God"

I cannot sufficiently elucidate my giddy lightheadedness. I have been walking into doors the past couple of days.

Dora Goss and Delia Sherman bought my short story, “The Utter Proximity of God”, for their Interfictions Anthology. Which means it’ll come out in a year, in a fricking book, which unless I am mistaken will be distributed by the very small publisher for whom I intern. My first ‘pro’ sale. To sweeten the buzz of this nitreous high, I realize the story I sold is actually the one that, at the moment at least, I consider to be my best work to date–mostly because it’s my first serious (meaning: post-Odyssey) attempt at magic realism.

What is Magic Realism?

What is magic realism?

I guess It would have made more sense to open the series with this question, make sure we were all on the same page before I started to tear them out and paste them together haphazard-like. Matter of fact, I meant to ask myself this question months ago, well before Odyssey, when it was still my sworn, deluded intention to write nothing but magic realist fiction while I was there. As it turns out, it’s lucky I didn’t. My definition has been drastically altered since then. Indeed, it may yet continue to change even as I’m sitting here trying to pin it, like the poorly-embalmed undead butterfly, to the page. Among many, many other things, Odyssey taught me wariness of terms. Does it show?

Still, I’m certainly never going to figure out how to write it unless I can ramble on about what it means long enough to work certain things out. I want a definition I can work from, which means a definition that allows me to write what I love. Beware. Here there be self-indulgence.

As I believe I’ve now made abundantly clear, what immediately gripped me upon first picking up Borges (upon first encountering a magic realist author termed as such), was the incredible gripping depth of his ideas, the complexity of his metaphors, the profound level on which his fictions engage the human condition. Yes, the preceding all sounds very pompous, and maybe makes me sound cleverer than I am. I believe what it all boils down to is the emotion they produced, which is awe.

Had I ever experienced that feeling before? Of course I had–it’s very much the same emotion that drew me to genre fiction in the first place. To Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper, when I was still just a kid. Before I’d become all jaded, before I’d grown accustomed to their tricks, to the standards they had set, I loved that awe so much that when I’d exhausted the good stuff I moved on to the Forgotten Realms and wondered why it all left such a foul taste in my mouth.

College caused me to break with that tradition (or rather, perhaps, intellectual aspirations originated by Michael Milan in my junior year high school english class, but only brought to fruition in the free, individualist environment of university-style education). As I couldn’t get the original pleasure out of the genre anyhow (or so I thought) I figured I must move on to the literary, refine my tastes, and attempt to get some similar pleasure out of the the inspiring quality of the writing itself as opposed to that of its content.

I loved Borges, and went on to hunt down everything else I could get my hands on that some unknown critic somewhere had convienently lumped together for me under the confusing heading ‘magic realism’, because it gave me a way back to the original raw emotional affinity I felt for fantasy without having to sacrifice the rarer pleasures of intellectual aspiration.

Magic realism, then, is for me rather like the cocaine to fantasy’s weed and literature’s alcohol.

Which is NOT my working definition.

Hell, I might just as easily say “magic realism” is merely “literary fantasy”. I have no desire to go into my immense dislike for THAT self-contradictory term and the writings which wedge themselves beneath its leaky umbrella. Suffice it to say that “literary” is a term reasonably applied by critics, not writers, a term, in other words, entirely subject to opinion. I’d much rather refrain from insulting the writing of any still-living author by referring to it as “literature”, and reserve that term for the works of the dead. Even the term “fantasy” carries problematic weight when applied to a contemporary work. For me, it connotes a great deal of derivation from fantasy of generations past. And frankly, how many gryphons/dragons/wizards/airships/magic swords does one find in Borges, Garcia Marquez, Bioy Casares, Calvino (just sticking to my canonical magic realists so as not to rock the boat)? None I have encountered. Now, there are a lot of writers I’d like to shift into the magic realist category who do in fact derive from other speculative fictions–Castaneda is my prime example–but they derive from what I’d call primary fictions. Myth. Tradition. Belief.

So, I’d say magic realism requires a more direct, distinct, and independent form of derivation from fictions that precede it than do either fantasy or literature. Indeed, it’s just possible that’s all it requires. Let’s look at something really borderline, then, shall we? To see if fits this theory. Consider Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel, or indeed any of his several other works that deal in transmigration of the soul, along the lines of Frankenstein. Are these not science fantasy? Is Frankenstein then a magic realist work? No. No, I do believe there is a distinction to be drawn, and here we come close to the definition Jeanne used for “magical realism” (my emphasis, as that “-al” will become important as we move on). Dr. Frankenstein treats his work as scientific. Shelley herself treats it as such. And while passion may overwhelm science as the driving force by the story’s end, science never ceases to be a subject of the conflict–science as exclusive province of man, indeed as one of his defining attributes, the way divine creation is attributed to God. The same could be said of Dr. Moreau. For Dr. Morel, on the other hand, fictitious science is merely the means which allows for the plausibility of a unique sequence of situations meant to illustrate the combined nature of love, memory and apprehension. Science is neither a theme nor a concern in the narrative. Passion is. Emotion is.

I use the term “magic realism” as opposed to “magical realism” at least partly because it is the term to which I was introduced. It is also, as I understand it, the older term. It originated in the 1920’s, intended, somewhat arbitrarily, to describe a style not of writing but painting, a style not entirely divested from post-expressionism and surrealism. But it was Miguel Angel Asturias, a Guatemalan writer if possible even less readable than Borges, who first chose the term to describe his own work, and it’s his example I choose to follow. “Magical realism” has always struck me as a critical rather than a writerly term, and I suspect its adoption by the modern English-speaking critical community may have been the result of a mistranslation. Mistranslation though it may be, however, it does serve a practical purpose in conveying one aspect of the meaning of the term. What sort of realism can justifiably be referred to as “magical”? The sort, I should say, that strikes the same chords as magic in a reader’s emotion–the sort that invokes awe. A magical realism, in other words, need not involve magic at all as the supernatural force we know from fantasy, so long as its realism evokes the same emotions. Thus can something like The General in His Labyrinth, by Garcia Marquez, a completely realistic, if fictional, memoir, still be accommodated by my definition.

Asturias, however, certainly did not choose the term for his own writing because of this literal interpretation of its mistranslation. Rather, he chose it because his writing does indeed involve magic of the traditional, supernatural sort–only not safely removed to some well-distant fairytale, but here in the real world. Asturias’ Men of Maize postulates, albeit with certain subtle reservations pertaining to fiction and belief, that Mayan mythology is true, that the Popol Vuh is real–or at least it was. Here then is the last, the broadest, and likely most the controversial facet of my definition of magic realism–the facet which allows me to include, not only Castaneda, beloved fraud in half-truth’s clothing, but the Bible, the Quran, the Torah, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of the Dead, the Bhagavad Gita, the Popol Vuh, etc, etc, on down through every divinely-inspired text of human belief ever produced. So long as you’re willing to admit they’re all fiction.

The second half of Jeanne’s official Odyssey definition of “magical realism” is that it must take a matter-of-fact approach to the fantastic, taking it for granted, so to speak, that magic is real and nothing to make a fuss about. A good example is the five-year rainstorm in One Hundred Years of Solitude about which nobody seems to bat an eye, so preoccupied are they with their wars and tragedies and suchlike. I’ve already established that the inverse of this rule also applies–that an everyday event treated as magical can have the same profound impact on the reader. But don’t the Popol Vuh, and indeed every other form of cultural mythology, fit Jeanne’s criterion? From our enlightened, English-speaking Western perspective, sure. They are fictions which, because they were once believed true, treat their fantastical content as real.

There are certainly others aside from myself who consider Carlos Castaneda among magic realists. There are others who consider him a writer of nonfiction, who would scoff, or even take offense, were I to suggest otherwise. But isn’t that true of any religion? My opinion in the matter originates with what Michael said when he lent me his copy of The Art of Dreaming. I paraphrase: “He claims it’s true, but there are complications. It’s best if you read this as fiction.” There is in Castaneda, however fraudulent, however tongue-in-cheek, an assertion of realness. And so long as I take Michael’s advice, and, for the purposes of pleasure, choose not to take Castaneda at his word, I am able to include him among magic realists.

A particular complaint leveled against the use of the term “magical realism” by Western critical circles is that it’s merely a postcolonial means of marginalizing colonial fiction, depriving it of the respect it deserves from the literary mainstream. I haven’t bothered to address this, because I couldn’t care less about the literary mainstream, whereas I hold the utmost respect for a great deal of what hovers on its fringe. But it’s this particular and peculiar distaste of mine for the cultural mainstream which gives me such perverse pleasure in including this last cagetory of magic realist works–those that people still do believe in. If that which brings me utmost pleasure in reading either fantasy or magic realism is awe, what then can be more awe-inspiring then the possibility, however far-fetched, however seemingly absurd, that the magic of which a ‘fiction’ speaks could indeed be real?

At last I reach a point of relative confidence. So. What constitutes a magic realist fiction?

1. Independence from the line of descent of mainstream fantastic fiction, either via the use of primary fantastic fictions such as myth, folklore and belief, or through individual creative thought.
2. The capacity to foster intense emotional responses in the reader, which I’ll call awe, through an uncanny, near-magical depth of understanding of the human condition demonstrated by monumental metaphor, or through the ability to reverse the roles of the fantastic and mundane, to create the possibility, however slight and by whatever means, that the fantastic is real, and the real fantastical.

The Reader Lost in Tlön—or—The Profound and the Horrific in Borges

This began as an attempt to define “magic realism”, but the tangent got so long I have decided to cut it off and isolate it in the manner of a mad scientist experimenting on a possessed extremity.

My first experience with magic realism termed as such was a Tufts class called “Literature of Chaos” taught by Juan Alonso. Best reading list ever! Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, Notes from Underground, The Stranger, and Borges. A harrowing lead-in, if I do declare. Violence and self-destruction digging deep ruts into the tracks of my consciousness, so when Borges came and knocked me sideways out of my shoes, the flood picked me up and dragged me with it. And no, that metaphor is not mixed. It is drawn from erosion.

It may not have been the first story of Borges’ I laid eyes on, but it was certainly “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” that first caught hold of my imagination in that elusive, open-ended way that has ever since riveted me to these strange aspirations.

The structure of “Tlön” is strongly reminiscent of horror. Its narrator is fervent, fastidious, quite Poeish really, even rather Lovecraftian, in that he remains consistently direct, seeming not at all interested in the beauty, the near-magical impact of the language by which he conveys his tale, but concentrates instead on the immense, brooding, consuming revelation that its events have provoked. Like so many of Lovecraft’s works and Poe’s, “Tlön” is written as historical narrative, as clear, concise observation by an intelligent, rational man of a series of events leading swiftly and directly away from rationality.

Often, a fiction of Borges loses its narrator entirely in the course of the telling. It seems to begin as a traditional story begins, with a person and a problem, a connection between reader and character that draws the reader further. Yet that human connection is lost at the wayside. What draws me to read to the end is not identification, not an interest in the outcome of a character’s plight. Rather, I have become that character, taken on his only defining attributes: his diligence, his fascination. I am unwilling to abandon the fathomless puzzle, despite the knowledge that this puzzle, as it has already caused the elision of the character whose place I’ve taken, will now impose that elision upon the story itself, projecting itself, by means of the human connection with which it began, out of fiction and onto the canvas of my own consciousness. “Tlön” has this structure, as do “The Circular Ruin”, “The Garden of Forking Paths”, “The Library of Babel”, “Funes, His Memory”, etc.

This structure is in fact what I was referring to when, in an earlier comment, I said the attempt to emulate Borges could lead to a mistaken emulation of Lovecraft. The Lovecraftian story structure, in order to achieve the sense of awe/terror with which the story leaves the reader at the end, simply replaces that monumental, ineluctable Borgesian metaphor (for example the garden-containing-book-containing-garden-actualizing-fate of “The Garden of Forking Paths”, or the self-actualizing universe of “Tlön”), with something from the standard Lovecraftian phraseology of externally-imposed madness (for example a Horror from Out of Time, or an Unspeakable Monstrosity from the Fathomless Aeons, or some such silliness). Not that I don’t love Lovecraft. But his stories veer sharply away from profundity as they reach that crucial point, and begin to move instead in the direction of pulp. Which is what makes them so much fun. Everybody loves pulp. Not everybody loves profundity.

It’s this fascination with profundity, with the intellectually engaging rather than the merely entertaining, to which I was making reference in the previous entry when I referred to a “willingness to hold a narrative at arm’s length”. It’s the reason I think the majority of people who read Borges find him dry and unpalatable, the reason I call him the Kant of Magic Realists.

Pierre Menard

First in what I hope to be a long series of rambling commentaries on magic realism, my favoritest genre that is not a genre.

Can one do what any author from any previous era has done? Can a writer be, say, “the Voltaire of his time” for any purpose beyond that of a book jacket blurb? Of course not. Even Pierre Menard, who undertakes the epic task of rewriting the Quixote word for word, begins from the assumption that he can never be Cervantes, and further that if he could it would mean nothing. And he fails utterly. And he himself is no more than a fictional shadow of Borges’ own inadequacy.

But can even Menard, who admits his task’s futility before he begins it, keep from trying? Can Borges keep from trying, who writes not novels, but the fragmented legends of long lost novels by authors who will never exist? No. Nor can I. Why should I?

My second cousin moved when he was nineteen years old to an utterly undeveloped section of forest in Leverett, MA. He began by living in a tent, and built everything he now has himself: cabin, barn, farmhouse, garden, swimming hole. For fifteen years he lived alone without plumbing or power. I can’t even begin to assay what that took. He has lived by some of my highest ideals. Yet as he pointed out to me himself, what is that compared to the same act performed on a thousand times the scale by pioneers on this same land a mere two hundred years ago?

My grandfather constructed a telescope. He spent a year grinding down the lens by hand. He built the casing himself. When I asked him about it he took out a piece of paper and sketched the entire process in ten minutes.

But now I’m just taking unfair credit for my genes, when the object was quite the opposite: to begin, like Menard, at humility, at abjection. The point is made: my grandfather is neither Galileo nor Prospero. My cousin is not John Muir; he is not Eärendil. I am not Borges.

Yet I have no intention to cease my attempts to do what Borges did, no matter how often I am advised to desist for my own sake. Like the Sorcerer, I am ready to die knowing I have been nothing but some other man’s dream–so long as I have been given the chance to create my own lasting illusions.

What constitutes this futile aping of another place and generation’s genius? What is this thing I love in my own writing, the thing so many others justly despise? Call it a willingness to hold a narrative at arm’s length, to evaluate it as one would a historical event or a dirty diaper, from angles unexpected by those whom the narrative immediately involved. Often a fiction of Borges’ takes the form of a memoir or biography. It has the style and feel of an old man recalling the greatest mistakes of his life to his peers. In “The Library of Babel” there is not a single line of dialogue. “Pierre Menard” is written as a literary criticism, not as a story. These are what at Odyssey I learned to call distancing techniques. But “The Library of Babel” depicts a universe composed entirely of a single library the limits of which have never, perhaps can never, be explored. Does a metaphor of such complexity, resonance, pure monolithic immensity, require dialogue to elucidate it? Does it require a story?

But that’s not the question. I’m posturing–pretending to aim an arrow I’ll never let go because I’m not quite fool enough to waste it. The real question is: how does one create such a metaphor, save by living it–to wit, by being Borges? By growing up in Argentina in the first half of the twentieth century, by slowly going blind, publishing jounrnalistic writings, criticisms, slipping in the occasional impossibly far-fetched yet somehow plausible fiction into print among the rest.

At the one hand, context, genius. At the other, aspiration. Can an author aspire to honest magic realism without immersing himself in the context of fiction-as-fact, literary and existential slight of hand?

My great friend and cowriter Michael Purpura has drawn around himself such a context. I don’t believe I’ve shared in this venue the glorious tale of the two Michaels and the dream stone. I’m not sure this is the moment to do so, if he’d even permit me to enter such a thing to public record. Let me just say it’s one of my favorite things that ever happened to me. The moment Michael put that stone in my hands possessed one hundred percent of the atmosphere, the trappings, elicited one hundred percent of the emotional responses I associate with a fantastical occurrence (responses I am most commonly acquainted with experiencing in dreams)–while from any rational perspective possessing no fantastical element at all. I’ve had other experiences along these lines–Why I Wandered… is the account of one such–but none to equal that intensity. Michael, I am sure, has had many, though undoubtedly he experiences them in a different way.

So there it is, such as it is: a magic realist context, just for me. An authenticity of experience from which I may postulate real, honest magics. Meager, perhaps. And not exactly the sort of context that sets one on a trajectory towards blind poetude, nor even towards middlingly believable abstract journalistic fictions. But maybe it’s enough. I don’t know enough about the biographies of the other towering figures of my magic realist consciousness to say whether they all had to find those trappings of magic in their own lives before they could proceed with fictions. Those who knew Borges, certainly, had but to interpret what they saw in him. Bioy Casares, Garcia Marquez. Castaneda certainly had some kind of real experience that he made a career of converting into fiction.

Maybe that means I ought to be following Michael around with a palm-frond fan and a notebook. Not that he’s Borges, or Don Juan. But I’m only aspiring to be a little teeny magic realist.

I do believe there are metaphors to be had, perhaps even such monolithic metaphors as might satisfy a reader of Borges, in a space as slim as that between the eye and the computer screen. Metaphors we’ve never seen and may never see unless I sit here and stare at it until my eyes go cross. They won’t be Menard or the Library of Babel. But perhaps they’ll be like them, at least enough for me to respect myself in the morning.

Best way to find out is to get cracking.