ToBS R1: ‘magic realism’ vs. living in brooklyn
[Matchup #1 in Tournament of Bookshit]
Wikipedia defines magical realism as “an aesthetic style or genre of fiction in which magical elements blend with the real world.” A more specific definition favored by a former instructor was that magical realism tended to concern itself with a world that was like our own–i.e., real–with the exception of one fantastic element. Sometimes that one element has profound implications for the ostensibly real world of the story, and sometimes it doesn’t, as in Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, whose flight-and-invisibility granting magical ring MacGuffin/conceit is mostly polite enough to stay out of the way of the realist novely bits.
There are two main things to know about magical realism.
First, it is probably the least honest genre since realism. In “Simulacra and Simulations,” Jean Baudrillard writes that “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.” What he means–in part–is that we allow ourselves the childish fantasy of Disneyland precisely because it makes the rest of our lives seem real, adult, and reasonable, when they are really anything but. The one permissible fantastic element in magical realism is the Disneyland to that story’s America. By clearly defining the one fantastic element as unreal, by saying “the magical ring is the fantastic bit,” we implicitly argue that the rest of the story depicts reality. We exalt realism as a successful duplication of the real world. In its apparent play with the categories of real and unreal, magical realism as she is played actually asserts an uncommonly rigid division of the two. It is realism’s unwitting helpmate in manufacturing the smug confidence of the American middle and upper-middle classes in the justice, normalcy, and fundamental realness of their position in the social order. This is one of the two reasons I hate it.
The second reason is that “magical realism” is really just another word for fantasy. While there is of course tremendous variation among fantasy stories in terms of how aggressively they insist on their reality, it’s an exceedingly rare thing to find a fantasy that asserts no relation to reality at all–The Lord of the Rings is a religious and political allegory and perhaps a loose exposition of race science, for instance. Magical realism as a category exists first and foremost so that people who think themselves above reading fun, exciting stories about dragons and etc. can enjoy a fantasy while calling it something else. “You should really read Fortress of Solitude,” they say, “It’s about superheroes but not really, sort of a magical real take that transcends genre,” desperately hoping no one notices that Lethem was previously the author of several excellent and unapologetically genrefied novels (his first, Gun with Occasional Music, a brilliant fusion of Raymond Chandler and Phillip K. Dick). It’s a way of turning up one’s nose at things millions of other people enjoy, a way of saying “What I love is better than what you love.”
(That most things I write could be and have been categorized as magical realism is a sore subject for me, believe it.)
As for living in Brooklyn, we should begin with the fact that I’ve never been and I don’t expect to go there soon. It may be that my literary career is therefore doomed. It’s always seemed strange and cruel that actors are supposed to go to L.A. and writers to New York City if they want to make it big, the early periods of even eventually-successful careers in these arts being almost perfectly correlated with extreme poverty, and these locations being–precisely because of the densities of economic activity that serve as potential force multipliers to young artistic careers–notoriously expensive. The cost of these particular raffle tickets is incredible is what I’m saying.
Of course Brooklyn isn’t Manhattan. The mean and median household incomes in Brooklyn are both about $9,000 below those of the U.S. as a whole. Manhattan is the real outlier (mean: $121,549; median: $64,217 [David Koch and Michael Bloomberg are skewing the former, naturally]) and seems to be what most people mean by “New York City” when they are talking about success or fame or what-have-you. Brooklyn comes with indie cred. Brooklyn is not associated with Wall Street. Brooklyn is photogenic because it denies that it is photogenic; images of this borough are 43% more likely to be treated with a poignant, nostalgia-inducing Photoshop filter such as film grain or sepia tone. Noah Baumbach lived there and so did his father. If I knew anyone who lived in Brooklyn, I imagine they would remind me of it often, and that I would find this alternately irritating and charming. But I don’t know anyone who lives in Brooklyn, and many authors I admire do. Lethem has lived in both Brooklyn and magical realism, but he has always been far prouder of the former–I think because he resists the genre (I flatter myself to think this his reasons similar to mine).
This being Mean Weak, we’ll give the crown to the worst: five stars for magical realism. Two thumbs up. Ten points from the Russian judge; eleven from the rest. We all know I only want to see it move on to the next round of hatefucks.
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WINNER: ‘magic realism’