Thursday, March 15, 2012

Musings on Magical Realism and Somnambulations in Surreality

Some say "magic realism" is just "literary" fantasy.

Some say it's just fantasy with more focus on realism than on magic.

Some say it's a fantasy that doesn't have rules for its magic system.

Some say it's like urban fantasy except it isn't urban fantasy.

Some just throw up their hands and give up.

So what is magic realism?

The answer is it's one of those genres that seems to confuse a lot of people and about which I see a lot of people asking questions on writing forums.

I enjoy magic realism and think a lot about it, since it's also a genre I write. I also enjoy and think a lot about what I suppose could be considerd its sister genre, surrealism, which is another genre that gets difficult to define between magic realism and fantasy and all the other genres that incorporate the fantastical out there.

There's a couple ways that I like to think about magic realism and surrealism. The difference between the two is something I'm still struggling to define, but I'll offer my thoughts on that as well. The definitions that I've come up with are really ones that work for both magic realism and surrealism, but which differentiate them from speculative fictions, including fantasy and science fiction. So I'll talk about that first, and then try to discuss how magic realism and surrealism relate to one another and are different.

Most broadly, magic realism and surrealism are both genres of fiction in which mundane reality merges with fantastical elements, juxtaposing the realistic elements of their stories with the more dream-like and magical elements in the same narrative. But that description doesn't distinguish it very much from various sub-genres of fantasy, so it helps to think about them in other characteristic ways.

The first way I like to think about magic realism and surrealism is that they are genres in which the wall between the story's objective reality and metaphor is broken down until it no longer exists.

One definition of magic realism I see thrown around sometimes is that it's fantasy that doesn't have or explain it's rules. This isn't quite true. The "magic" and fantastical elements of magic realism and surrealism must make sense, but they must make a very different kind of sense than the magic systems in fantasy worlds. They must make a metaphoric kind of sense that is true to the nature of the story and the characters. The fantastical characters of Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders in Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore claim to be bound be rules, but they are rules which make no sense to us, and no explanation of any kind of elaborate magical system is forthcoming; rather they are figures with "rules" that we can only begin to understand by considering them in a metaphoric sense in the context of the story and the characters with whom they interact.

The other way I like to think about magic realism and surrealism is that they are genres in which the fantastical elements emerge from the story, rather than the story emerging from the fantastical elements.

Speculative fiction tends to tell fantastical stories with fantastical plot elements. Magic realism and surrealism tend to tell mundane stories with fantastical plot elements. Stories in fantasy tend to revolve around the fantastical elements: the magic or the invented world. Stories in science fiction tend to revolve around the speculative scientific and technological elements and the futuristic world. In speculative fiction, the fantastical elements of their worlds must make sense even stripped of the story. Take away the characters and the plot, and the magic system still exists, the technology still works, and the foundational world still functions. In fantasy, even if the idea for the story preceded the invention of the world in which it takes place, the fantastical world the author constructs must be the foundation of the story. The story must be built on sensible world-building.

The worlds of magic realism and surrealism work fundamentally differently: the "magic" arises from the story itself and the fantastical elements tend to make sense only in the context of the story and its characters. Magic realism and surrealism are not thought experiments. Take away the plot and the characters, and the magic can no longer exist. By contrast, if every Star Wars and Star Trek story spontaneously disappeared from the Earth (breathe!! — this is only hypothetical), their universes would still exist independently enough to spawn totally new ones. However, the alternative, mystical version of 1984 of Murakami's 1Q84 with its air chrysalises and two moons and the Little People has no reason to exist at all without the characters of Tengo and Aomame and their story together. In speculative fiction, the story is built on the foundation of the fantastical world. In magic realism and fantasy, the magic of the world is build on the foundation of the story.

By its nature, magic realism utilizes the fantastical to tell an ordinary story, often one rooted in our material reality and consciousness. Surrealism utilizes the fantastical to tell an ordinary story, often one rooted in our psychic world and subconsciousness. The fantastical elements exist to illustrate the more illogical and irrational and fantastical and dream-like parts of our mundane lives and the human experience rather than existing to tell a fantastical story.

None of this is to say that in fantasy, the magical elements can't be metaphoric, or that science fiction can't  tell a story that's largely about our present-day material world. You can certainly write a fantasy novel that boils down to a love story. You can write a sci-fi short story that's ultimately about racial tensions in America. You can pen an urban fiction novella in which the vampires are metaphoric for forbidden love or kinky sex or Wall Street stockbrokers. You can type-up a cyberpunk pulpfic that ultimately uses robots and the 'net to explore the question of what makes us human. That doesn't make these stories magic realism or surrealism. Because in these stories, the symbolic possibilities probably aren't the forefront motivation for the fantastical elements. In spec fic, your vampires have to make sense as vampires before they can make sense as metaphors, and your robots have to make sense as robots before you can say anything about the human condition. In the end, they're still largely "what if" stories. Which is okay. Speculative fiction, magic realism, and surrealism can all be equally deep and layered and meaningful, but what differentiates their stories is the motivation, purpose, and function of the fantastical elements within them, and on what level of the story they are at work.

This is also not to say that there is no overlap. There can be considerable overlap. Hell, I think it would be possible to write a story that is simultaneously science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, and surrealist. Or at least employs elements of all of the above. Take, for example, the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is often billed as science fiction. Though the movie has a rather sci-fi premise — a medical treatment to erase memories — I think it could be described as magic realism with sci-fi elements. Similarly, Pan's Labyrinth successfully combines fantasy and magic realism. In both films, the stories focus on our material reality, and the fantastical elements arise naturally from the needs of the stories. Though their speculative premises are sensible apart from the story, we get the sense that they exist solely for telling the stories of the main characters. They explore not their fantastical worlds, but rather use their fantastical elements to explore the inner journeys of their characters in stories rooted in realism.

So what, now, of magic realism versus surrealism?

That's one I'm still struggling with, because I don't think there's a clear distinction between the two. I think it's more of a spectrum. As I mentioned earlier, magic realism tends to use its "magic" to illuminate the illogical and irrational parts of stories rooted in our material reality while surrealism tends to use its dreamlike elements to illuminate the illogical and irrational nature of the more dreamlike and subconscious inner journeys of our own minds. Where exactly that line lies, I think, is one up for interpretation.

Magic realism gains much of its narrative strength in its casual use of magical elements in a narrative otherwise rooted in realism. Conversely, surrealism accomplishes its effects by taking the events of reality and placing them in a surreal, dreamlike world. Contrast, for example, Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle with his Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I would call the former magic realism and the latter surrealism. What would you call them?

I hope my explanations of magical realism make a little sense to someone else out there, too. It's not just a polite way of saying fantasy. When I write fantasy, I'll call it fantasy. When I write magic realism, I call it magic realism. And when I write surrealism, maybe I'll be able to explain it better. For now, I like my definitions as applying to both magic realism and surrealism, and will continue to think of the two as two ends of the same spectrum. What do you think? What defines magic realism and surrealism for you?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sometimes sad fiction is also the most beautiful

My favorite musician Steven Wilson of the band Porcupine Tree once said before playing "Stop Swimming" on the live album Warszawa, "This is a sad song. But, if you're like me, I always find the saddest music is also the most beautiful."

What, as humans, draws us to sad stories? Or not necessarily sad stories, but drama. Melodrama, even. When we create fiction, we always have conflict on our minds. Conflict is important. You must have conflict, we're told. You need conflict in every chapter, in every scene, in every sentence. Is that true? No, not always, but it's something we live by.

Much of fiction is built around antagonists, whether displaced in the form of a villain or natural forces, or internalized within the characters themselves. There is always something working against characters to prevent them from getting what they want. And it's important our characters want something, or else why are we telling their stories?

But what draws us to this setup? What makes conflict interesting? There exists much fiction that succeeds with very little conflict, or very low-stakes conflict. There is successful low-stakes conflict all around us that makes us feel good and secure and warm and fuzzy inside, from the latest blockbuster romantic comedy to the hottest wish-fulfillment paranormal romance title to comic strips and Hallmark greeting cards to anime like K-On! and Yuru Yuri. These are fictions that bring us happiness and joy, and remind us of the simple delights of the little things in life. But do they change us? To what extent do they affect us?

My favorite movie of all time is End of Evangelion, renowned in otaku circles for how depressing it supposedly is, but it's raw and uncomfortable directness is exactly what I love about it. Good fiction makes us uncomfortable. The best of fiction challenges. My favorite prose comes from the pens of the likes of David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, and Bret Easton Ellis, none of them known for writing happy-go-lucky fiction.

I read novels to feel, not to feel good. But what is it that's comforting about feeling bad?

Is it because we feel sad emotions more intensely than we feel happiness? Is it because that is how we feel alive?

I'm reminded of recent anime: Puella Magi Madoka Magica. For those of you who haven't seen it, it's basically a darker and edgier magical girl anime, which is ultimately about love, friendship, and sacrifice, and in the show, the magical girls in it have to battle witches, culminating in a final fight against the most powerful witch of all, called Walpurgisnacht. It turns out the witches are actually fallen magical girls, and most of them follow rules and are given backstories of how they became witches and what they represent. The final witch, Walpurgisnacht is so powerful that she breaks these rules, without any apparent explanation, and serves as the impending and inevitable doom against which the magical girls must struggle. It turns out Walpurgisnacht is canonically designated as a "stage-constructing witch." She exists solely so that the story can exist. The darkness and drama surrounding her presence serves merely as the external impetus and backdrop to the interpersonal angst and drama against which the magical girls are truly fighting, conquering their internal demons.

Evil is an illusion, but it is an illusion that serves the purpose of illuminating the good. Humans are flawed creatures, and its those flaws which make people interesting. Darker fiction can affect us more because it forces us to face our flaws. Sadness must exist in order for happiness to exist. If there were no bad feelings to measure the good against, we would just be trapped in a cage of bland uncertainty. If there is never any despair, then hope loses it's meaning.

It's often said that you don't really appreciate something until you lose it. I think that's what makes darker fiction work, and what makes it impact us so deeply. When I think back on the memories I cherish most, in many ways, it's the sadder memories that stay with me. Even my happiest moments are stained with sadness, because at the time, I knew they were fleeting, and that recognition of their ephemeral nature made me cherish them all the more, because I knew they would, in a moment, be gone. Those things which we know will disappear, we hold to our chests more tightly than those things which we know will stay with us forever.

Now that I think about it, I wonder if that is part of what makes budding romance so intense: the fear that is could evaporate at any moment and the lack of reassurance that it will last forever. Things which last forever are in some ways meaningless, because there is no reason to cherish them if there is no fear of losing them. And I wonder if that is what makes adolescence such an intense part of life. Perhaps some part of us instinctively knows that the times we have are fleeting, a mere instant of a potentially long life, that will slip away before we know it, and therefore we feel compelled to feel everything in every ounce of our soul, in every cubic centimeter of our being.

I like fiction that makes me cry. Without the cheap tricks like killing off a puppy for no good reason. I like fiction that challenges me. I like fiction that holds up a mirror to the parts of myself I'd rather forget, and makes me examine the chips and scars in me. Why? Because it's how I know that I'm alive. It's what reminds us of our existence. A review of the anime Saikano reads "Every time I watch the last episode of [i]Saikano[/i], I feel like I'll never be happy ever again. The world could end, and I wouldn't notice because I'd be too busy feeling the after effects..." I love fiction that can make me feel scraped raw and naked. Because every time we're stripped to our souls and forced to confront our terrible flaws, we are forced to reborn, and learn to crawl a little bit toward a newer, less broken version of ourselves. It's how we evolve. Stories are how we change ourselves, little by little.

And without the danger of losing something, there is no impetus to step forward. We can take only the things that are guaranteed in life, but that is just cowardice. In the end, humans cannot be born without other humans dying. A happiness without the possibility of losing it is an empty happiness.

That's why we read sad stories. Because we're all broken in some way. And it's only in recognizing in that that we can being to fix ourselves.

Appended afterthoughts:

What fiction has taught me is that to erase all sadness, to feel only happiness, or the illusion of happiness, would be the same as returning to the womb, a regression to an infantile existence. It may feel good, but I wouldn't really call it true happiness. I'm not sure I would even call it existence. It would just be blissful ignorance, without the possibility for change. I'm dreadfully familiar with why that can be dearfully desirable, to the point of catatonia, but I don't think it would be a good thing. It's just a return to nothingness.

Accepting the possibility of sadness is a necessary condition for hope, the possibility of love, the potential for understanding, and a prerequisite for the promise of the fulfillment of the dream that one day one heart can truly reach another.