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?