Magical Realism and the Imminent Frame

Open up to Imagination by Ryan Hickox
Open up to Imagination by Ryan Hickox

I’ve been thinking recently about the challenge of communicating about spiritual matters in our ‘so-called secular’ age, largely inspired by J.K.A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular. In particular, I’ve been wondering about the role of fiction in this regard, as I’ve re-read David Foster Wallace, Douglas Coupland, Don Delillo and Zadie Smith.

So I really enjoyed Deborah Bowen’s article at Cardus on Contemporary Fiction and a Longing for the Miraculous. In it she discusses the subversive power of magical realism and the work of authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie, and wonders why it is that this mode of writing remains so significant in our supposedly secular age.

The whole thing is worth a read, whether or not you are interested in writing fiction, since the principles apply to other art forms. But here are a couple of stand-out quotes that helped me.

In a talk he gave in 1994, American novelist John Updike said, “Fiction is rooted in an act of faith: a presumption of an inherent signification in human activity that makes daily life worth dramatizing and particularizing. There is even a shadowy cosmic presumption that the universe . . . composes a narrative and contains a poem, which our own stories and poems echo.” He’s describing realism, here: the kind of fictional writing most of us are most accustomed to. Realism implicitly affirms that ordinary things are significant, and that storytelling about ordinary experience is valuable. But Marquez would have wanted to add that magical realism affirms these things too: after all, he sees it as a description of his own experience of everyday life. “Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America,” he said in a 1973 interview with The Atlantic, where he was explaining how he understands magical realism as realistic—as normal.

Unlike fantasy, which lives in a world of its own, one of the particular strengths of magical realism is that it pushes us as readers and viewers to question what actually is real, and what is the relationship between imagination and daily life. And so there is something deeply subversive about it, because it unsettles our accepted ways of seeing. This is why J. Michael Dash has called it a “counter-culture of the imagination”—it creates the possibility of crossing all kinds of boundaries. “Magical realism often facilitates the fusion, or coexistence, of possible worlds, spaces, systems that would be irreconcilable in other modes of fiction,” say two of its foremost theorists, Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy Faris.

One of these boundary-crossings involves the border between the everyday and the spiritual. The British critic Christopher Warnes has actually defined magical realism as “a mode of narration that naturalizes or normalizes the supernatural.” Anyone else thinking again about the Bible, here? Perhaps magical realism may just have become necessary for writing about religion and faith in a secularized world. Already thirty years ago, Salman Rushdie said of his writing about India, “The first thing you notice about that country . . . is that they believe in God, that the divine is a part of everyday life. If you employ realism—a rational, Western way of using language—to describe such a society, you are implicitly being critical of it. Therefore you must use language in a manner which permits God to exist.” This of course suggests that magical realism would also be able to convey spiritual realities in a post-Christian West, pushing readers to look for non-rational and perhaps supernatural explanations within everyday realities, and raising questions that have become harder to bring up in the realist fiction which most of us are more used to.

It does seem that this label of “magical realism” has created an acceptable space for an overtly Christian novel as it negotiates its way in the marketplace of unbelief and spiritual wayfaring. For a secularized but spiritually curious culture, Enger’s novel suggests that both the miraculous and the everyday are unlike our stereotyped ideas of them—whether “secular” or “sacred.”

Precisely because of that, magical realism may even offer a healthy challenge to faith. How ironic that the Reformation, in Charles Taylor’s account of it, worked as “an engine of disenchantment.” Unpacking this idea, Alan Jacobs suggests that “by concentrating all power in the being and acts of the Triune God it [the Reformation] drain[ed] the world of spiritual energies.” The hunger for magical realism in a secular age might also wake up the church the enchanted vision it has too long forgotten.

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