The Magic & Mystery in Magical Realism

The term magic implies sleight of hand, an ability to make things appear and disappear at will. In a magic show, magicians exercise their ability to draw viewers’ attention away from what the magicians are doing so they can convince those watching that a rabbit really does appear at random out of an empty hat, or that any number of equally fantastic events can occur. In this case, the magic isn’t really magical in the sense of a supernatural intervention because there’s a trick at its foundation based on perception and how skillful the magician is at keeping the audience distracted enough not to notice the hoax involved.

Something similar happens with writers. They capture our attention through assembling strings of words that become a compelling narrative we follow. Just as a viewer at a magic show sets aside his/her momentary doubts about what’s happening before his/her eyes, so too do readers enter the narrative dream. That enables the writer to convince readers that the setting, characters, and events taking place are actually happening in real time when, in truth, they aren’t. They only come to life in the readers’ imagination as readers let go of their immediate world to undertake this journey into the unknown. Put this way, reading can seem like a potentially dangerous endeavor, and it can be if a writer’s ideas and images shatter some preconceived notion about the world and about us.

Magic also has the ability to temporarily take people out of the constraints of everyday life and make them feel they can transcend it. Instead of being locked inside the usual routines that structure our days, we find release when something magical happens, such as when we watch a play in a theatre and suddenly our world is transformed. We’re no longer our daily selves, but we begin to identify with what’s occurring on the stage and participate in all of the characters involved, good guys and bad guys.

Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo is a good example of this dynamic. An unhappily married Depression-era waitress played by Mia Farrow tries to escape her dull marriage by visiting picture shows and becomes transfixed with the movie The Purple Rose of Cairo and its lead character, archeologist Tom Baxter. When Tom literally steps off of the screen and into her life, both realities are thrown into chaos. As happens with Mia’s character, we’re under the actors’ and director’s spell, convinced that the action unfolding in front of us is real, though it’s only make-believe. It’s as if the characters can step from the screen and interact with us.

From these examples I’ve given, it’s easy to see that any writing, whether it’s a novel or a play, has a magical component to it. The primary storytelling goal is magic, achieved by mysterious means. Words themselves are transformative in that they can so easily metamorphose into other words: world contains word and old. Add or subtract a letter here or there and we’ve landed in a different meaning. Words in themselves are slippery and magical, calling forth images just by naming things: red chair, oak table, 2006 Honda Accord, green plaid coat, eucalyptus tree. Read the text and suddenly something appears in our mind’s eye. Amazing!

And then there’s the way the wind can blow open a door, filling the house with a gust of cold air, or the sun can illuminate a field and immediately transform our experience of that place. Or the timer on our living room lamp switches on silently and the room is now swathed in light, creating a totally different atmosphere. That’s one reason we talk about something magical happening, or of a place as being magical. In fact, the world is magical not only in its inherent changeability but also because of our interaction with it.

That’s where “realism” enters the discussion. Reality is both magical and “real,” if by real we mean something that isn’t imagined. I’m not a philosopher, but this computer I’m typing on has a life distinct from mine. My husband, who is sitting reading in a chair across from me, can see it and agree on its reality. But it also exists in a world where objects can become symbols for something else, so while my computer retains its identify as a writer’s tool, it also can represent a window into another universe. It can become a metaphor for many things, just as most objects can.

This, then, seems to be the foundation for what we call magic realism. Language by its very nature is magical, transforming our everyday reality in multiple ways, carrying us aloft on the wings of thought. The writer confronts reality and tries to untangle it, to discover what is mysterious in things, in life, in human acts. The principle thing is not the creation of imaginary beings or worlds but the discovery of the mysterious relationship between our circumstances and us. The magical realist does not try to copy the surrounding reality but to seize the mystery that breathes behind things.

These observations deserve more explication. Magical realism isn’t the only way art, and in this instance literature, reveals truths that otherwise might not be recognizable. Most literary writers are trying to understand in a more profound way the dynamics between individuals and groups. They’re probing everyday events for what might be hidden from view. It isn’t unlike what Don DeLillo’s character Artis in Zero K observes:

I’m aware that when we see something, we are getting only a measure of information, a sense, an inkling of what really is there to see. I don’t know the details or the terminology but I do know that the optic nerve is not telling the full truth. We’re seeing only intimations. The rest is our invention, our way of reconstructing what is actual, if there is any such thing, philosophically, as what we call actual.

Artis could be speaking for the writer/artist who knows that our ordinary vision, our way of apprehending the world and its contents, is limited. Probing the actual, then, is what writers and also many visual artists attempt. I’m thinking of Anthony Marra’s recent collection of linked short stories The Tsar of Love and Techno. By taking his readers inside the fractured world of Chechnya and the former USSR between the 1930s, the present, and even beyond, he reveals the tragic consequences of Stalinist Russia and surroundings. In the book, art both reveals and conceals, as when a painter from the first story is forced to censor photographs and paintings. He airbrushes a ballerina out of a photograph, changes other pictures to make Stalin look better, and obliterates his brother’s face from a family photo because his brother’s religious beliefs made him a traitor in the harsh environment of the communist regime. Yet he later paints his brother’s face in the background of every painting he is charged with altering.

This action demonstrates the power artists have, whether writers or visual artists, to alter what we call reality or the actual. What we think we are perceiving can suddenly shift. We easily can be deluded into believing what is being presented visually when in actuality there is little basis for its veracity. Donald Trump is an expert at creating this type of illusion by using his experience in so-called reality TV shows. But, aside from Trump’s sleight of hand, we are constantly struggling to strip away the veils that obscure our understanding of things in the hope we’ll come closer to whatever reality is.

Writers who employ magical realism have a unique method. They don’t try to delude the reader into thinking what is presented on the page is real in the sense it is something that could actually happen. Instead, the narrative leans more in the opposite direction, presenting images/descriptions that the reader understands are not true to our lived life but still contain an even more persuasive reality.

This approach isn’t new. In reading about Virgil’s Aeneid in Richard Jenkyns’ Classical Literature, I came across the following:

Virgil makes the familiar become strange: the Trojans see the River Tiber breaking out into the sea from thick forest, after having sailed past the scented and mysterious island of the enchantress Circe by night, hearing her song and the howling of her animals. Tiber is miraculously stilled before Aeneas travels up it to Evander’s town on the site of future Rome; the trees and waters marvel, as though they had come alive, and the boat cuts through the woodland as though penetrating a jungle.

First, the Tiber is actually in Rome, but in this narrative, the river is linked to Circe’s island, a fictional world. Next, this powerful river is temporarily at rest to allow Aeneas to safely reach Evander’s town. Then, the trees and waters are anthropomorphized, responding emotionally to what has just happened. Finally, this vessel created to travel in water also can move on land, and in a thickly wooded area. Virgil isn’t trying to convince his readers that these things are true to our lived life, but he is showing that those things we take for granted can step out of character and behave differently, contradicting our expectations. His descriptions demonstrate the mystery underlying the Trojan’s journey. A study would show, I’m sure, that many other texts inhabit the magical realism genre if not fully then partially.

This passage reminds me of what quantum mechanics suggests about our universe. Some physicists believe that many interacting worlds (MIW) exist in vast numbers, are real, and “exert influence on each other.” The passage goes on to point out that.

There are three main points to the MIW theory…. First, that the universe we live in is just one of an unknown ‘gigantic’ number of worlds, some of which are ‘almost identical to ours,’ but most are ‘very different.’ Second, all of the worlds are ‘equally real,’ existing continuously through time with precisely defined properties. Third, quantum phenomena arise from ‘a universal force of repulsion between ‘nearby’ (i.e. similar) worlds, which tends to make them more dissimilar.’ ‘All quantum effects arise from, and only from, the interaction between worlds,’ the physicists explained in their abstract. (https://www.rt.com/usa/202255-many-interacting-worlds-quantum-mechanics/)

I’m not a physicist, but as a writer, I can speculate from this theory. Since everything that could have happened in our past but did not has occurred in the past of some other universe, time may not necessarily always follow its prescribed linear path or could be much more complicated than what we believe. The MIW theory also opens up the possibility that humans will be able to interact one day with some of these parallel worlds. We could conclude that in its way, magical realism is more real than naturalistic, representational fiction.


Photo by Jeremy Beck on Unsplash

Lily Iona MacKenzie

A poet, essayist, and novelist, Lily MacKenzie's work has appeared in over 165 venues. She has also published four novels (Fling!, Curva Peligrosa, Freefall: A Divine Comedy, and The Ripening: A Canadian Girl Grows Up, a sequel to Freefall). Her poetry collection All This and chapbook No More Kings are also published. Shanti Arts Publishing will release her hybrid memoir Dreaming Myself into Old Age: One Woman’s Search for Meaning in 2023. I teach creative writing at the University of San Francisco’s Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning and blog about reading and writing at http://lilyionamackenzie.com.