How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Magical Realism

UNSPEAKABLE THINGS
by Kathleen Spivack
Knopf, 304 pages

For many years, magical realism felt to me like literature’s answer to a prop comic. It was the cheapest screwdriver in the author’s toolbox, an indulgent and nigh unpardonable offense on the level of the dreaded Third Act Misunderstanding whereby a character’s real motivations are revealed in an aloof and seemingly careless manner that could have been avoided had the protagonist only asked a few vital questions near the beginning. Magical realism was the entitled ruffian who hit you up for spare change yet never had any intention of working. Sure, you gave the fellow your last dollar anyway with the somewhat naive faith that he would either get his act together or, failing that, live interestingly, but you somehow got the sense that your offering was probably going to tallboys and meth.

In trying to understand why magical realism has irked me, I began to realize, conversely, that I’ve always sustained a love for fantasy and its many offshoots. There’s a great delight in reading any novel offering a smart and goofy juxtaposition of historical icons or mythical tropes. I think of Tom Carson tinkering with both Joyce and Sherwood Schwartz in his deeply underappreciated novel, Gilligan’s Wake (almost a couch potato counterpart to Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld novels) or the satirical thrust that fuels Angela Carter’s remarkable Nights at the Circus, in which a woman sprouts wings not long after she is hatched from an egg and joins the big top. I also enjoyed the wave of Bizarro fiction that sprung up a few years ago, which blew the lid off magical realism’s conceit by pushing it into punkish terrain that felt authentically absurdist. I certainly couldn’t resist the thrill of a panoramic phantasmagoria, such as the crumbling world contained within Mervyn Peake’s excellent Gormenghast trilogy. Writers like Fritz Leiber won me over into their imaginative worlds by imbuing such unforgettable characters like Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser with comic depth (or, in a more urban fantasy mode, the Jungian and historical references that Lieber weaved within Our Lady of Darkness). Octavia E. Butler and China Miéville have often made me forget that I was reading a fantasy altogether because they grounded their universes in vital social and moral questions. Clearly, I always needed a bit of what UCB improvisers call “base reality.” 1

So my reluctance has never been about what the artist is willing to conjure up, but the manner in which the story is told. I have held Pinocchio’s story dear to my heart ever since I first read Carlo Collodi thirty-five years ago. I’m happy to accept a piece of wood whose nose grows when he fibs because Pinocchio is imbued with the very human motivation of wanting to be a boy. By contrast, the Tim Burton film Big Fish infuriated me because the great myths that the protagonist invents to bury his pain felt tedious and mawkish: these were very human needs that, in execution, transmuted into quite obvious and soulless mechanisms to advance the narrative and called attention to themselves. But I never felt this way about Terry Gilliam’s ballsy and underrated Tideland, which also contends with how fantasy is a method to cope with the real. That was because Gilliam had the courage to depict, with incomparable poetry, how escaping reality was a double-edged sword. And his fierce vision, which even the cogent Jonathan Rosenbaum called a “diseased Lewis Carroll universe,” was a sharp and welcome contrast to the insufferably bourgeois and risk-averse Burton, whose contributions to magical realism and fantasy continue to resemble more of a desiccated bean counter than a genuine artist.2

Magical realism’s worst moments, such as the many cardinal sins committed by the wildly overrated Salman Rushdie, involve a tremendous contempt for the reader’s suspension of disbelief, almost a crippling anxiety to go the distance with something that is emotionally true rather than an “anything goes” choice. The bad magical realist always opts for the shoddy shortcut. For example, we are expected to buy into The Satanic Verses after two actors descend from the heavens from an exploding plane and hit earth without so much as a scratch. (Even when First Blood had Rambo plunge off a cliff face with barely a bruise, an altogether different sort of magical realism, at least the filmmakers were willing to show us that Rambo suffered from memories of being tortured in Vietnam. When a film helmed by the director of Weekend at Bernie’s respects the audience more than a Booker Prize-winning author, it is enough to cause pause.) To add insult to injury, this duo becomes an angel and a devil. Rushdie’s approach is especially egregious because it comes saddled with grandstanding claptrap in which this creative transgression is aligned with illusory import, such as this needless and quite awful sentence:

Up there in air-space, in that soft, imperceptible field which had been made possible by the century and which, thereafter, made the century possible, becoming one of its defining locations, the place of movement and of war, the planet-shrinker and power-vacuum, most insecure and transitory of zones, illusory, discontinuous, metamorphic, — because when you throw everything up in the air anything becomes possible — wayupthere, at any rate, changes took place in delirious actors that would have gladdened the heart of old Mr. Lamarck: under extreme environmental pressure, characteristics were acquired.

The searing chutzpah of this flagrant aside, which not only claims some tenuous association with Lamarck (the beginnings of a half-baked 550-page riff on immigrants vastly outshadowed by the work of Junot Diaz, Arundhati Roy, Alfredo Vea, and many more), but has the temerity to justify its lack of inventive prowess with the “anything becomes possible” line, was probably responsible for me feeling terribly queasy about reading anything written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende for a long goddam while. But maybe I detected, quite rightly as it turns out, that Rushdie was a man who was less committed to the art and more concerned with having a doting shoulder to cry on each year when the fine folks in Stockholm wisely denied him the Nobel.

Some years ago, Other Press was kind enough to send me a copy of Michael Crummey’s Galore. I very much enjoyed the novel and, when I talked with Crummey as he rolled through New York, I was relieved to hear that he was a bit discomfited by Marquez as well. I learned that Crummey was more concerned with reckoning with 19th century Newfoundland, in which much of its population lived hardscrabble lives that often ended around fifty-five. Galore, with its discovery of on albino inside a beached whale, felt to me like magical realism done right.

But now that I’ve read Kathleen Spivack’s Unspeakable Things, a book so jampacked with story strands that the only way one can really describe it is to point out that it involves émigrés who have fled from World War II’s turmoil and who are contending with unanticipated memories (apologies for the pat summation), I believe I’m now ready to stop avoiding magical realism. For long stretches of this wonderfully vivacious and often daring novel, it never occurred to me that the book was magical realism, even as the fingers of prominent violinists (the Tolstoi String Quartet, which appears to be based on the infamous Kolisch Quartet) express Nazi sympathies or one of its major characters (Anna, aka the Rat, called so for spending so much of her life sedentary) is physically transformed (complete with burnt-in handprints) after repeat sexual assaults by Rasputin. Spivack’s invention is rooted in a keen interest in prewar Vienna that has been reflected in many of her poems and a great love for music that, as Spivack revealed in a recent Rumpus interview, was carefully compartmentalized through playlists she selected for each character that Spivack would play while writing. Unspeakable Things is willing to impart an atmosphere through many moods. Aside from the aforementioned magical realism, there is a lyrical drive — such as an Esperanto-hawking idealist named Herbert in denial about his personal accomplishments, the ghost of Herbert’s gay son that seems to curl around any stray pipe, and the “keen animal sharpness” of New York’s harsh winds. There is an attention to telling gesture with the Rat’s constant smoothing of her hands against her clothes and a witty portrayal of the traveling musician’s life with an appreciative audience who leaves far too many casseroles at the violinist’s door.

One never feels betrayed by Spivack because her particular spin on magical realism is never used gratuitously. The Rat’s compulsion to dance, her exhaustion from an “an orgasm of endless talking,” not only serves the story, but is a subtle callback to Freud badgering his female patients during the Vienna Secession. Spivack is more inclined to explore the inner minds and hearts of her characters and the Holocaust’s lingering shadow through behavior that emerges from her characters. One never has to worry about some portentous “soft, imperceptible field…made possible by the century” that the reader MUST pay attention to. But just as Spivack’s novel strikes varying levels of invention to propel its narrative, it also manages to tap into a surprising well of hilarity, sadness, outrageousness, and foreboding within its engaging pages.

Interestingly enough, Spivack herself is seventy-seven and Unspeakable Things is her debut novel. And I very much wish this book had been around twenty years ago instead of the infuriating Rushdie. Because if this novel had been one of my main introductions to magical realism, I never would have soured on the form. And I certainly wouldn’t have taken six weeks to tell you why this book is worth reading.

Better late than never.

(Photo: Dominick Reuter)

© 2016, Edward Champion. All rights reserved.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks to your review (and the Amazon preview), I’ve just downloaded a copy of the novel. Your views never fail to fascinate and/or provoke, so please keep the reviews coming — more often, if possible!

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