Realism, Magical and Otherwise
No one ever read a story to me as a child, so I think I had to find all the magic, fairy tale, and made-up adventures on my own. Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh came into my life as a teenager, along with Dostoyevski, Charlotte Bronte, and Jane Austen. They all dealt with life, emotional life, and when I read that bastion of magica; realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude—and a character just levitated into the air—it all made sense to me. The world was porous. What I imagined was as true as what I saw.
There’s a ranking of genre that drops from realistic fiction to magical realism to fantasy to science fiction (you can change the order anyway you want). Magical realism—in which the world is distinctly our world, only with, shall we say, living metaphors popping in—is the suburban area of literary fiction, before we venture into the wilds and “here be dragons” of the speculative world.
But I don’t believe there is a war between literary realism and speculative literature, except the false critical war that says real literature deals with real people with real problems (as if real problems can’t be problems with the real world).
Of course our cultural mythology—our religions and hence our beliefs—is filled with supernatural beings and divine rewards and punishments, and is by and large assumed to be true. And the stories we tell our children are filled with animated animals and magical fairies. We do have a natural instinct to reach for the non-real as a method of understanding the world and our place in it.
The real and the literary bind us to our bodies; the magic releases our minds. Consider Alice—for me, the prototype of how to deal with impossible worlds. She doesn’t weep (except, of course, to create a river of tears, another metaphor gone live). She doesn’t give in. She is firm and inquisitive and occasionally impatient. (As is a Bronte or Austen heroine.)
And who of us doesn’t occasionally get impatient with the non-sense that life throws at us?
One of my stories, “The Hair,” owes an homage to Gogol’s “The Nose” (and since they teach him in literary classes, let’s assume he’s not a fantasy writer) in that a co-worker steals the protagonist’s hair. At the time, I had lost all my hair from chemo, and this story worked out the sense of being attacked, of having to cope in a world that had gone haywire and could get even more so. But you don’t need to know that to like the story; and I don’t think Gogol actually lost his nose—in both cases, metaphors became live. Metaphors made more sense of the experience than memoir. Parts of our bodies can betray us by getting a life of their own—Einstein’s hair, Frida Kahlo’s eyebrows—they can personify us. We merely travel with them. And just as, in the real world, desirable things can get stolen, so in the world of magical realism, your hair and your job can be stolen, and your nose can go off on its own.
Likewise, “Creating Cow” owes a lot to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—which, again, is a bridge between the literary and the speculative. It also owes a great deal to my vegetarianism. It’s a reverse slaughterhouse story.
As for “The Inner City”—who doesn’t occasionally feel that someone is manipulating us behind the scenes? There are people who are lucky and people who aren’t—but is it really “luck” when some people always get a parking spot and others just drive around forever? Aren’t we right to be suspicious? “The Inner City” is a metaphor for all those things that seem to come out of nowhere and disconcert us. An indifferent universe? Or an indifferent conspiracy? Which makes more sense?
And our misgivings about the future? Medicine experiments with transplants from animals; where will interspecies grafts go? Is there something out there waiting to replace us? Have we gone too far? You can stay in the world of the real and be very concerned about it, or you can use all the possibilities we unknowingly embody and make them into a story, a fairy tale, a journey that goes past the mundane (where we think we are) into the speculative world of what we imagine can be done, or will be done, or will be done to us. And you can make your point a bit more easily that way. Possibility gives rise to idea which gives rise to action.
That’s magic. And it’s realism, too, because the imagination is the only way reality can get in.
The Inner City
The Inner City
ChiZine Publications, February 15, 2013
Trade Paperback and eBook, 225 pages
Anything is possible: people breed dogs with humans to create a servant class; beneath one great city lies another city, running it surreptitiously; an employee finds that her hair has been stolen by someone intent on getting her job; strange fish fall from trees and birds talk too much; a boy tries to figure out what he can get when the Rapture leaves good stuff behind. Everything is familiar; everything is different. Behind it all, is there some strange kind of design or merely just the chance to adapt? In Karen Heuler’s stories, characters cope with the strange without thinking it’s strange, sometimes invested in what’s going on, sometimes trapped by it, but always finding their own way in.
Book page: http://chizinepub.com/books/inner-city.php