Grounding the magic of magical realism

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Grounding magical realism while writing short fictionMaybe it’s a sign of the times, since our world already seems so topsy-turvy, but lately I’ve been loving reading stories that feature magical realism.

Karen Russell’s vampires, trying to live without feasting on blood by sucking on lemons instead. Julia Elliott’s frustrated school teacher seeing the feral galloping of her own wandering heart made real in the packs of wild dogs terrorizing her neighbourhood. Mavis Gallant’s ghosts, lodging complaints against earthly feelings of guilt and annoyance.

Magical realism is a tough nut – when it works it really works and when it doesn’t, it really doesn’t.

Part of the wonder of magical realism is balancing both the magic and the real. This isn’t fantasy: magical realism stays rooted in the routine. It’s really when something extraordinary happens in an otherwise mundane situation. More often than not, it’s making a comment on something very earthly and human by conjuring a bit of magic that acts as a stand-in for a real scenario, stretching its limits and possibilities in ways that make us see it in a fresh, new light.

Russell’s vampire story might really be a meditation on monogamy. But she’s pulled the story in all kinds of directions that put an even sharper edge on that theme. She’s elevated impulse into a question of, when does a craving feel like life and death? She’s taken the notion of a lifetime of fidelity and pushed it to its infinite extreme, creating characters who can’t die. She’s juxtaposed the sunny brightness of early love against the sometimes dreary darkness of long-term commitment by making a brilliant lemon grove the backdrop for the struggle of her medieval, mordant characters.

The magic energizes the story. The realism grounds it. (And frankly, gives it a lot of humour.)

Gallant’s ghosts go to the police to lodge their gripes. They want the living to leave them alone. One, a soldier, just wants to go to mass in peace. He doesn’t want the congregation saddling him with their expectations. Another, a refugee mother ill-treated in life, wants the medical professionals who wouldn’t help her live to leave her alone in death. And the last, a devoted wife and mother, wants her husband to lay off the hagiography. She finds the reputation of being an angel is too heavy a weight to have to wear in death.

The premise itself promises magic – ghosts filling out paperwork in a country known for its bureaucracy is a delicious little send-up of the French – and yet Gallant keeps the story from floating away by having the ghosts complain of very specific, reasonable scenarios. Again, I can picture Gallant at a café, asking herself: how to comment on the way people live… How about showing how they “live” when they’re dead?

Elliott’s magical realism (in this story, at least) is much more subtle. A teacher considers an affair while wild dogs lurk outside her window. The wild dogs are clearly a metaphor, but what makes the story sing is that Elliott relies on the dogs as a kind of chorus, stepping in for the teacher’s feelings. Yet the dogs are doing what dogs do: they’re snarling, they’re barking, they’re cornering people in parking lots. They’re baring their teeth, ripping through garbage, feasting on rotted remains. They’re rampant, the result of wild breeding and inattention. They’re lusty, thirsting, howling at the moon.

Sounds about right when thinking about the heady passion of an ill-advised affair, right? There’s something magical and foreboding about those dogs, but they’re as real as can be.

If you’re struggling with making a magical story work, step back from it. Try to critically evaluate where a dash of realism would help ground the magic. Set some rules for what the magic can and cannot do. Set some boundaries for where it needs to bump up against real life. The magic helps set up your story but the realism makes it work.

(For a treat, listen to Karen Russell read Mavis Gallant’s “From the Fifteenth District” and discuss why it works with the New Yorker’s Deborah Triesman.)

(Photo courtesy of Pixabay.)

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