Fiction for an Unnatural Era – The Case for Magical Realism

Times are strange: our government can spy on us and say it’s for our protection. The folks who hold that abortion is murder also claim the right to carry guns. And a white woman (who claimed that she was black) gets elected local president for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Strange times call for unorthodox fiction – the kind that sheds light on social ills. Magical Realism is well-suited for this purpose. Allow me to illustrate.

"Over the Town" by Marc Chagall, 1918

“Over the Town” by Marc Chagall, 1918

A key quality of the genre is that extraordinary events are treated as part of the everyday world. At the start of The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende), Rosa del Valle is born with the features of a mermaid: green hair and yellow eyes. A midwife declares her to be, “…the most beautiful creature to be born on earth since the days of original sin.” Yet that is not enough to protect her. As the novel proceeds, she comes down with a cold and is treated with poisoned brandy – a “gift” intended for her father, who is running for Senate. Thus, instead of pondering Rosa’s unearthly beauty we are forced to focus on the facts surrounding her death.

Unlike science fiction and fantasy (which also depict the unnatural), Magical Realism offers gritty dispatches from the mundane. In Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), Florentino woos Fermina – both of whom are in their eighties – by renting a steamer. As the boat drifts down the Magdelena River, Florentino notes that previous steamboat crews have denuded the forests that used to line the river. Pairing devastation with romantic gesture heightens the absurdity of both: “For the first three days [they] were protected by the soft springtime of the enclosed observation deck, but when the wood was rationed and the cooling system began to fail, the Presidential Suite became a steam bath.”

"Snow Girl" (

“Snow Girl” (

Magic turns the world on its head: As evening falls on the Alaskan wilderness a childless couple carves a small figure out of snow. After Jack and Mabel have decorated the “girl” with a skirt, scarf and mittens, they rise the next morning to find the creature and their clothing gone. Like many works of its type, The Snow Child (Eowyn Ivey) is based upon a fairy tale. Yet, instead of solving the couple’s problems (as in the original fable), this “daughter” generates more. When Mabel tries to tell her friend how she and Jack have spotted the child, Esther suspects that Mabel has lost her mind. Mabel turns to her husband, “It’s true. Isn’t it Jack? We saw her. In her little blue coat.” But Jack shifts in his chair and shrugs, “It could have been anything…”

The laws of time are often ignored: In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson retells multiple scenes. The book opens with the death-during-birth of Ursula Todd. In the next chapter Todd is born again and survives. Ursula endures the London Blitzkrieg on many occasions: surviving sometimes, dying at others. And in one surprising iteration she befriends Hitler (then murders him). This pattern of repetition and change creates the effect of looking at life from the soul’s perspective. “What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” says Ursula to her therapist. Many readers would agree.

Most important in an age when Americans need to be reminded that “Black Lives Matter,” Magical Realism offers the gift of social commentary. The genre often highlights a clash between cultures: rich and poor, powerless and empowered, indigenous and colonial. In Tracks, Louise Erdrich shines a light on federal imperialism in North Dakota. The story revolves around Fleur Pillager, who is preternaturally gifted. During the course of the novel Fleur drowns on three occasions, conjures a tornado and shape-shifts into a bear. Yet she is powerless to protect her family’s land from acquisition by the U.S. government. “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall,” Fleur’s father tells her daughter. He then goes on to narrate tales of hunger, tribal conflict and loss of land.


Anishanaabe and Indian Schools :

The mission of fiction is personal for each of us. Some read for education, some to be entertained, and some for its power to reform. Each of us wants to feel connected to the spirit of our time. Though young, the 21st century already includes several events belonging to this genre. Some are unreal – like the 2000 U.S. presidential election, with its “hanging chads” and an outcome that took 36 days to decide. Some have subverted our sense of order – destruction of the World Trade Centers. And some have shed light on social ills – like the mobs which appear seemingly out of nowhere, cell phones in hand, to expose police brutality. Magical Realism offers a way to speak about this reality, and I look forward to reading more.


What genre do you find best-suited for our times and why?



7 thoughts on “Fiction for an Unnatural Era – The Case for Magical Realism

  1. I have loved a few of the books / authors you mention for exactly this — the ability to introduce the extraordinary into the ordinary, preferring it be accomplished with a light and deft hand. I suppose, in considering what it says about our times, since I don’t generally read sci-fi, mystery, or fantasy, it provides a necessary escape from the madness that permeates our society today.

    • Escape, yes. For me, healing too. Love it when someone portrays the world in all its complexity – both/and versus either/or, good mixed with bad, sane mixed with crazy. Thanks very much for your comments.

  2. I agree that the times often generate the genre, for example Realism as a reaction to the growing middle class materialism of the 19th century and absurdist satire in response to the Vietnam War (ex. Vonnegut, Heller). Interestingly, Vonnegut and Heller set their novels during the “good” war fought by The Greatest Generation. One could probably argue that Magic Realism has been around as long as readers have enjoyed imaginative literature, with the possible exception of those dedicated Realists. But how to explain Henry James’ disturbing Turn of the Screw?

    • British Gothic? Speculating here: James was an American who spent a good part of his adult life hanging around the English nobility. As an outsider from a young country, he may have felt more sensitive (than his hosts) to the past/ghosts hanging around their homes. Wonderful question. Makes me want to research. Thanks for your comment.

      • One explanation is that James based his governess/ protagonist on his sister, who was mentally ill, and that all the ghosts in the book are actually projections of her fevered sexual imagination. Hence, the evil done is done by her, who, ironically, is trying to prevent it.

  3. I usually prefer more realistic fiction, unless in children’s books, where I can more easily suspend my disbelief—but maybe I’d be less disillusioned with today’s politics with a bit of of magic! 🙂

  4. Meant to add—but I think this great post will broaden my horizons—and I’m off to read The House of the Spirits…

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