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.