When the great Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez died in April of this year, there was general agreement that the western world had lost one of its most original and powerful voices. Marquez, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982 and had been writing groundbreaking stories and novels since the 1950’s, is perhaps best-known for One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), and thus for working in a mode that has been called “magical realism”—a mode in literature (but also in visual art and cinema) where the normal conventions of realism are consistently overturned in favour of the coexistence of things everyday and things magical: of human beings and, for instance, angels.
You’d be right if you thought this sounded a bit like the Bible. And yet magical realism—or even what critic Andrew Tate has called “miraculous realism”—remains a significant literary strain in our supposedly “secular” age.
Consider Marquez’s story, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” that dates back to 1955. In this story, the angel who visits a sick child is old and decrepit, and ends up collapsing into the backyard of the child’s family; their response is to treat him like a circus freak, and charge for admission to see him penned up in their chicken coop. When he finally manages to regrow some wing feathers and fly away, the mother at the kitchen window watches him go with a sense of relief. The whole story asks the question, “How would you actually respond to a supernatural, miraculous presence if it fell into your lap?” Which, of course, is the same question that could be asked of the world Jesus came into, the first time around.
In a talk he gave in 1994, American novelist John Updike said, “Fiction is rooted in an act of faith: a presumption of an inherent signification in human activity that makes daily life worth dramatizing and particularizing. There is even a shadowy cosmic presumption that the universe . . . composes a narrative and contains a poem, which our own stories and poems echo.” He’s describing realism, here: the kind of fictional writing most of us are most accustomed to. Realism implicitly affirms that ordinary things are significant, and that storytelling about ordinary experience is valuable. But Marquez would have wanted to add that magical realism affirms these things too: after all, he sees it as a description of his own experience of everyday life. “Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America,” he said in a 1973 interview with The Atlantic, where he was explaining how he understands magical realism as realistic—as normal.
And in fact this mode of writing has by no means been confined to Latin America. Some of Updike’s own fiction has strongly surreal characteristics. And then there’s Salman Rushdie’s work: I think particularly of Midnight’s Children (1980), where the children born between midnight and 1:00 a.m. on the date of the birth of independent India have preternatural gifts, and the narrator Saleem, one of these children, assembles, via a kind of telepathic India-wide web, a Midnight Children’s Conference where the children reflect all the cultural, religious, and political tensions of life in India. Or there’s Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), where the dead child returns to haunt the living mother who had killed her rather than allow her to be taken back into slavery. And Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water (1993), where four Indians of indeterminate but great age, housed in a psychiatric hospital run by Dr. Joe Hovaugh (a.k.a. Jehovah), regularly leave to “set the world to rights”; they accomplish this by shapeshifting into key figures of native and western cultural mythology, in order to tell the Grand Story of the creation and preservation of the world again and again until the Indian perspective wins out. We might think, even, of the Harry Potter books (1997-2007); though the entry into the magical Hogwarts world is always a definite movement, as in fantasy fiction—via an accommodating station wall, a magic vehicle, a spell—life with those oppressive Muggle relatives is magically real in somewhat the same sense as are the multidimensional fictional worlds of Marquez, Rushdie, Morrison, and King.
This kind of blurring of the real and the surreal, the everyday and the magical, is common to movies also. It’s true of a movie like Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), but equally of Like Water for Chocolate (1992), or Being John Malkovich (1999), or Moulin Rouge (2001), or Stranger than Fiction (2006), or Midnight in Paris (2011). And there are many, many more. Unlike fantasy, which lives in a world of its own, one of the particular strengths of magical realism is that it pushes us as readers and viewers to question what actually is real, and what is the relationship between imagination and daily life. And so there is something deeply subversive about it, because it unsettles our accepted ways of seeing. This is why J. Michael Dash has called it a “counter-culture of the imagination”—it creates the possibility of crossing all kinds of boundaries. “Magical realism often facilitates the fusion, or coexistence, of possible worlds, spaces, systems that would be irreconcilable in other modes of fiction,” say two of its foremost theorists, Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy Faris.
One of these boundary-crossings involves the border between the everyday and the spiritual. The British critic Christopher Warnes has actually defined magical realism as “a mode of narration that naturalizes or normalizes the supernatural.” Anyone else thinking again about the Bible, here? Perhaps magical realism may just have become necessary for writing about religion and faith in a secularized world. Already thirty years ago, Salman Rushdie said of his writing about India, “The first thing you notice about that country . . . is that they believe in God, that the divine is a part of everyday life. If you employ realism—a rational, Western way of using language—to describe such a society, you are implicitly being critical of it. Therefore you must use language in a manner which permits God to exist.” This of course suggests that magical realism would also be able to convey spiritual realities in a post-Christian West, pushing readers to look for non-rational and perhaps supernatural explanations within everyday realities, and raising questions that have become harder to bring up in the realist fiction which most of us are more used to.
As a specific instance, let’s take a look at a novel from 2001 that has been described in reviews as “miraculous”: Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River. In the first part of this novel, miraculous events occur through the narrator’s father, Jeremiah Land, who commanded his son Reuben back to life out of his unbreathing first moments. In fact, Jeremiah’s prayers for his children are so intense that, at another point in the story, he walks right off the flatbed truck on which he is pacing as he prays, continues walking on thin air, and then returns to the truck none the wiser. Jeremiah’s hospitality, poverty, and faith are such that a special soup he makes for his daughter’s birthday keeps bountifully feeding the family plus an uninvited guest, long after it must logically have been finished—Judeo-Christian readers will hear the echo of Elisha and the widow’s pot of oil, or Jesus’s miracle with the loaves and the fish, just under the surface here. And then the saddle with a split in it, a birthday gift to Jeremiah’s daughter, is miraculously healed under his touch. Jeremiah’s compassion even leads him to reach out and heal the boil-infested face of a man who has just unfairly fired him. The miracles gradually change in kind as the book progresses: Jeremiah and two of his kids drive unseen through a state full of troopers on the lookout for them; they get snowed in with a female stranger who will in short order become their beloved stepmother; they coincidentally find themselves near as could be to the fugitive son they are seeking. Reuben comes to understand that their whole lives have been miraculously guided, but only gradually is able to appreciate the inner miracles: that Jeremiah is able to forgive his enemies; that he, Reuben, can repent of his own hatred of the cop seeking his brother; and finally that his life is saved by his father’s sacrificial death on his behalf. So Enger’s book has a great deal to say to the Christian faithful about the presence of the miraculous in the everyday.
What should intrigue us is the reception of such a novel in late modern culture. The book seems to have spoken loudly to a wider spectrum of readers than might be expected of a regular Christian novel. Take Marta Salij, writing in the Detroit Free Press two weeks after 9/11: “Leif Enger may have unwittingly written the perfect book for an anxious time. . . . A book of deep faith in faith, yet it is neither simple nor sentimental.” Or Connie Ogle in The Miami Herald: “It’s dangerous work, writing about faith. To get it as right as Leif Enger does in his novel is nothing short of miraculous. What could be unbelievable becomes extraordinary in Enger’s hands. . . . If words can bolster lapsed faith, if a story can sturdy a shaky foundation, then the flow of Enger’s amazing new novel may bring more than a few of us to his promised peace.” Or John Freeman, in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Enger’s twinkle-eyed prose will coax even the most skeptical readers to suspend their disbelief.” Not quite true, of course: Rob Thomas in The Capital Times complains that “Enger is clearly trying to make some simple, powerful statements about faith here, but his story is so far removed from reality . . . that the modern reader can’t really take his Sunday school lessons to heart.” Peace Like a River, says Thomas, is “an odd little novel that mixes a wintry Minnesota setting with flashes of magical realism, as if Gabriel Garcia Marquez had written ‘Lake Wobegon Days.'” Odd little novel or not, it’s been a huge success with readers, and Thomas’s grudging use here of the term “magical realism” is more useful than he knows.
For it does seem that this label of “magical realism” has created an acceptable space for an overtly Christian novel as it negotiates its way in the marketplace of unbelief and spiritual wayfaring. For a secularized but spiritually curious culture, Enger’s novel suggests that both the miraculous and the everyday are unlike our stereotyped ideas of them—whether “secular” or “sacred.”
Precisely because of that, magical realism may even offer a healthy challenge to faith. How ironic that the Reformation, in Charles Taylor’s account of it, worked as “an engine of disenchantment.” Unpacking this idea, Alan Jacobs suggests that “by concentrating all power in the being and acts of the Triune God it [the Reformation] drain[ed] the world of spiritual energies.” The hunger for magical realism in a secular age might also wake up the church the enchanted vision it has too long forgotten.