Magical Realism

Subtitle: An Introduction to Talking Cats and Moody Plants

Earlier this week I started reading Yan Lianke’s The Explosion Chronicles, and I have been captivated with it from the get-go. At first I was a little nervous, as the book promised to be a sweeping history of Explosion, the book’s fictional town (or city, or metropolis, depending on where you are in the story), and it took a little while to become acclimated with the Kong family, namely to learn and distinguish between the four Kong brothers, whose names took a little time to become familiar to this Western reader. As I recently abandoned a book for greener pastures (thank heavens), I started to tease out my own reading themes. In describing the book to Mr. Brain I said something like “It’s a generational novel with some really great magical realism elements,” to which Mr. Brain replied, “Sounds right up your alley.”

As it turns out, in one of those pointing-out-the-obvious-truth-bombs, this is totally up my fictional alley, and in looking back on all the books I’ve read that felt like paradigm shifters, portals to new fictional experiences, a lot of them have fallen into this category. Emotive plants, talking cats, permeable walls; I appreciate the creativity and the freedom to create symbols and experiences not otherwise possible in any other medium. Books create a theoretical world that is only subject to its own reality, and somehow these worlds feel more encompassing to me than they might in another medium like film or illustration. At any rate, I’ve been walking down my own memory lane of literary wonder worlds.

Italo Calvino
Cosmicomics and If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler

Rowing to the moon? Reading a book within a book? Italo Calvino was my first discovery of something like magical realism, though Cosmicomics definitely fits the bill more so than If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler. If you’re a fan of Stranger Than Fiction, Calvino is your man. Yes, I just made a movie reference, but it’s a good, light gateway into Calvino. Cosmicomics is a collection of stories, The Distance of the Moon being the most well-known, and for a good reason. I still loving imagining what the moon’s light would feel like as I row towards it.

Gabriel García Márquez
One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude was my first real foray into a longer form book that was pure magical realism, and I can still picture exactly where I sat in my long ago apartment when I read this. Like The Explosion ChroniclesOne Hundred Years of Solitude is also a generational saga, and I still think about the character who eats only dirt is is blown away with her laundry. Since the story spans so much time, it is worth the effort to move through its history and to understand the cyclical, self-fulling prophecies that drive the book and its fabled family.

Haruki Murakami
Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Sputnik Sweetheart, and 1Q84

Aah, Murakami. My running/writing spirit animal. Murakami loves talking cats, or perhaps just cats in general. I can think of several of his books in which cats weave in and out of plots as catalysts to events. The thing I appreciate most about Murakami is that he loves dual realities and small events that create butterfly effects in the lives of his characters. In Sputnik Sweetheart, someone gets on an ill-fated ferris wheel and forever changes her reality, and in 1Q84 someone takes a new exit ramp on a regularly traveled route and also alters the course of her life. These are gross oversimplifications of his novels, but I am a huge fan. The three novels I mentioned popped into my head in considering the most fantastical of his novels that I’ve read. Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and 1Q84 are fairly long and involved (800+ pages each), but I enjoyed spending an extended period of time in these worlds and felt like it was necessary to the story for it to be a little more involved.

Louise Glück
The Wild Iris

Okay, this one isn’t magical realism, per se, and it isn’t fiction (per se), but I loved this collection of poems by Louise Glück as they create a conversation between a garden and its gardener. It’s both whimsical and complex at the same time, and while I don’t read a lot of poetry, this one has stayed with me for many years. This collection is very narrative and I appreciated the concept. It’s short enough to appreciate in one sitting, preferably outside, though probably best read slowly and pondered…still outside.

*Photo credit: Image of floating book courtesy of Weinnat Mongkulmann

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