I started reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children back in 1998; it was the first book I recorded in the book log I’ve been keeping ever since. About six months later I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I just finished reading Isabel Allende’s novel The House of the Spirits.
I’ve read more than a thousand books (over seventeen hundred, actually) since my first recorded exposure to magical realism, so I’m better able to articulate an opinion. All three of these strange books are great in the sense that they are literary, cultural touchstones. But I don’t like them.
Probably I dislike these magical realism books in part because I don’t know enough political history to appreciate their settings, but I think mainly I dislike the books because they’re exaggerated. Grotesquely. I don’t like exaggeration as a form of humor—or as a form of literature, apparently.
I don’t mind fantasy books at all. I am willing to suspend disbelief when reading stories about dragons or other planets (or dragons and other planets—thank you, Anne McCaffrey), perhaps because it’s super clear when I’m supposed to. Pretending that wizards or warp drives are normal is a cooperative enterprise I can happily engage in with the author.
In contrast, magical realism makes me feel like the victim of a prolonged practical joke. The author presents what seems to be a realistic world, but then, here and there, nonchalantly distorts it worse than a fun-house mirror. Am I supposed to take the magical bits at face value (which is how they’re presented)? Are the magical bits just literary cleverness signposting some kind of wise metaphor that I’m stupidly overlooking? Is the magic just random nonsense that’s supposed to be funny, precisely because it makes no sense? I’m uncomfortable with all three of these theories, especially because a single book could, for all I know, include a mix of elements that fit all three patterns.*
Is magical realism to be lauded for causing feelings of mystery that reflect the mystery of real life, or is it to be criticized for pretentiously making book-reading as a form of entertainment harder than it needs to be? The former, judging by the sales figures.
However, in fact the sales figures have been used by literary critics to support the notion that magical realist works are not deserving of respect. Regardless of whether it’s about McCaffrey’s Pern or Allende’s Chile, any novel the masses enjoy, the logic goes, cannot be very profound.
Personally, no matter what the sales figures or the critics say, I’d far rather read magic than magical realism.
*Or—this didn’t even occur to me but was pointed out by someone in the HHBC discussion—maybe the magical elements are indicative of an unreliable narrator. In other words, maybe the story involves no magical events at all, but is being related by someone who’s lying, confused, or crazy. (I don’t like unreliable narrators any more than I like magical realism, so for me, this theory, while useful, doesn’t exactly fix the problem.)