The world is hungry for magic. There is an enchantment in every recorded culture with the baffling and the unexplainable, an enduring search for whatever underlying hoodoo jives with and rearranges predictable existences. Well recorded responses to mysticism and the uncertain have ranged from stonings to developing cults to writing bestselling novels, but moderate responses to what we do not understand appear to be limited, or to not exist at all. In the realm of literature, what is confusing and, often, strange is bread and butter—the needed fodder for ideological exchange, for the development of assumption shattering introspection.
Writers have responded to these enigmatic historical and cultural cues with a plethora of varying narratives, but magical realism, one of the most recognizable and beloved literary styles, emerged because of this exact fascination. The genre rose to prominence in the 30’s during a period of intense conflict, literally positioned between the First and Second World Wars and after centuries of colonialism on almost every continent. This era of cataclysmic, unprecedented, and far reaching manmade events predicated a crisis in literature all over the world. Issues of morality, global citizenship, political prowess, identity, and anxiety came pressing and jostling to the fore as never before and demanded the attention of artists and writers.
Their incongruity externally manifests itself, and in doing so, becomes its own type of logic; identity becomes environment.
The first appearance of magical realism was in German art, and after its emergence the genre innovated as it trickled down through the creative ranks. Besides the surrealistic depiction of the lush and multifarious oddities of postmodern life, the presence of fringe narratives throughout the canon became its most common marker. Each author developed their own spin: Marquez, watching a dictator lose his mind as well as his power; Morrison, giving shape and voice to slavery and its horrors; Rushdie, bringing the devil to earth and letting him roam; Pamuk, blanketing snow on suicidal hijabis; Murakami, finding a missing wife by climbing into the bottom of a well. Inevitably, the sense of place in each work is overwhelming—these narrators find themselves lost in familiar landscape, unable to grapple with the upheaval of their lives or fit into the chaos of the time in which they are living. Their incongruity externally manifests itself, and in doing so, becomes its own type of logic; identity becomes environment.
In this way magical realism becomes the modern version of myth making where the line blurs between what is possible and what feels true, a story made for the mysterious bits of human existence and the workings of the world that even now science and philosophy, those bastions of reason, have been unable to fully explain. In writing about this subject Jean Delbaere-Garant coined the terms compensatory vision and felt history, technical phrases that encompass the give and take of human perception that make certain experiences almost inexpressible, and our subsequent need to embellish reality to get at the heart of what life really is; what is truer than true.
In more recent years, American literature has taken these ideas and shifted toward a new form of Romanticism that turns the merely incongruous into the monstrous and the technical; falling in love with vampires and mothering dragons, fighting out of booby-trapped mazes and rebelling against conspiratorial personality reprogramming. Our subjective history has gone meta—our fears becoming more concrete as they are made into possibilities by technology, but still amorphous enough that ISIS can be described as a hydra and Donald Trump lampooned as an ogre. These metaphors continue to be what they have always been—a struggle against political tyranny, the wresting off of religious and cultural oppression, a search for identity—but the mechanics of dread and the rapid advance of modernity have both banished and amplified our ancestral anxieties. What we once considered to be unbelievable and magical has been supplanted by the speed of satellite connection and the ready availability of rapid communication; invisible networks we can never turn off that create cultural ripples whose impact we are still endeavoring to understand.
We have entered a cultural phase that has no equivalent in human history, and literature has responded with flexibility and adaption, just as its authors have always done. As our inventions begin to outpace us and the questions from that process inevitably rise, the humanity at our base remains the same, as do the dreams and bewilderments of daily living. Our context changes, but our awe in the face of mystery doesn’t diminish. In other words, we may never be able to face reality, but hopefully, somehow, literature can.
Kelsey Capps is a writer and Reader in Residence at The Wild Detectives. Her short stories and reviews have been mentioned in a variety of publications including Hobo Pancakes, Literary Hub, and The Guardian, and she is finishing her second novel. You can follow her work and current reads on Instagram at @readwritethecraft.