Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction

Sorry this is late.

For the most part I liked the Flores article we read for class this week. It did a great job of saying what magical realism is and how that fit into the context of Spanish American Fiction. I found the article informative because I’ve known the term “magical realism” but never really knew its exact definition. Some parts of the article were frustrating however. I didn’t recognize a lot of the authors she mentioned which made it hard to relate the evidence she used in the essay to her actual argument, and some of the quoted Spanish passages were beyond my reading comprehension of Spanish. Also, this article was written in 1955–predating postmodernism–so I started thinking about how it relates to the broader scope of our postmodern theory lessons, which it doesn’t touch on for obvios reasons.

First, there’s the obvios linear path: Flores’ essay helps us understand elements in The People of Paper, the book we read this week for class. The People of Paper features postmodern elements like multiple narratives and so “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction” relates in that way.

However, there is one point Flores makes in her essay that I believe includes some of the elements in postmodern fiction. Flores writes that a crucual element to magical realism is the magical element “was accepted by the other chracters as an almost normal event” (191). I believe this is one way that magical realism can fall into postmodernism. Many postmodern writers attempt to reveal the narratives that societies follow without realizing they follow them. Magical realism is a technique that allows some of these narrative threads to be revealed. By changing society’s norms to the point where something like people made of paper is accepted by the characters in the novel and also the reader of the novel, we can get a better glimpse at the norms that define society in genereal. One example in the People of Paper is that the multiple narratives present the differing view points of what is really happening in “reality” while accepting the magical parts as true. In this way, we are given differing perspectives of the real and forced to ask questions not about whether people made of paper are real but how reality is manifest to each individual observer.

The writer and his subjects

Wow. I had thought House of Leaves took us on a whirlwind tour de force narrative, but I think Plascencia’s People of Paper has Danielewski’s work beat. I have so many questions. I was really hooked by the Prologue and the first couple of chapters, but then found myself juggling so many narratives. Obviously there are connections between the narratives, but these connections are often vague, and I kept waiting to have some grand epiphany as to how all the puzzle pieces really come together.

One of the main puzzle pieces I found myself working to place was the question of Saturn’s identity. Initially, and at many points throughout the novel, it seems that Saturn is a God-figure. He’s all-knowing, always watching the many characters. However, the characters are able to hide from him behind their lead walls and doors and by blocking out some of their thoughts from “view.” However, we also learn that “Saturn’s real name is Salvador Plascencia” (102). Postcards sent to Saturn are addressed to Plascencia, and the two continue to be equated throughout the novel. We learn that Saturn’s great-grandfather is Don Victoriano and his father is Antonio, providing more connections between the characters and suggesting that Saturn is not a God-figure. It also seems that Saturn is, at least at times, an actual neighbor in the town because Smiley watches “the light from Saturn’s bedroom” being turned on and off (151). Saturn’s identity is clearly jumbled, but it seems that Saturn is most likely representative of the author and Plascencia is commenting on writing and the role of the writer.

The town is at war against Saturn, a war which is later referred to as “the war on an omniscient narrator” (218). At several points throughout the novel we learn that Saturn is losing some control over the story. Early in the novel he is said to be “blind to the progression of the story” (105). Later, Sandra shares that “After all these pages, as Saturn faded, it was our voices that directed the story, our collective might pressing Saturn into a corner” (216). At this point in the novel, the voices of the characters dominate the pages. Saturn is called a “tyrant” because he is “commanding the story where he wants it to go” (228). The characters want privacy. They build their safe houses to protect themselves from Saturn’s view. Even when the lead houses must be taken down, the characters are still able to withhold information from Saturn—the author—by withholding thoughts when telling their story. The clearest example of this withholding of information is when Froggy “never revealed what the letters [from Sandra] said” (244). He viewed this withholding of information as “his small way of triumphing over Saturn.” In this sense, the character is withholding information from not only the author, who has not provided full disclosure of the character’s thoughts, actions, and motivations, but also from the reader. Not all questions are answered, and some things have been left open to interpretation. The characters seem to prefer this “privacy” to full disclosure. Little Merced even feels anger “not only toward Saturn, but also against those who stared down at the page, against those who followed sentences into her father’s room and into his bed, watching […] perhaps even laughing” (186). It seems that Plascencia is making a statement about the writer’s role, suggesting that not all questions should be answered but, rather, things should be left open to interpretation, just as they are in life.

In this way, Plascencia also suggests, as Cameroon states, that we are “not of paper” (226). Cameroon says that there is a difference between telling and writing. As both Cameroon and Liz point out, an author cannot capture the whole story when trying to portray a character or a person. Text, then, and the retelling of the stories on it, becomes dangerous, as Ralph and Elisa Landin conclude (219). It is interesting that Plascencia suggests that writers embark on a dangerous task when they write their stories, and yet his novel seems so personal.

Paper Cut.

Paradoxically, I quite liked and enjoyed this book while at the same time having a lot of issues with it. Susanna and Sarah kind of beat me to the punch with their excellent posts, but I agree with Susanna’s highlighting of the misogynistic elements of the story, particularly the treatment of Mexican women who choose to form relationships with European men. I have often felt that postmodernist works have gotten a free pass on misogyny in their text (and I’m not implying that the authors are by extension misogynist, I’m just looking at textual evidence) because of the concept that misogyny is somehow dated or irrelevant to postmodernist writing-that is has somehow moved “past” misogyny. 

I also have some issues with the term “magical realism” but I think that might be more the clumsy handling of the term that I heard in other classes. I also feel like there’s been a sort of limiting categorization of Latin American literature-given that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is still probably the best known and selling Latin American author in English-as inextricably linked with magical realism. Of course, part of this is due to the limited availability of translated works. I take exception to Flores’ claim at the end of his article that “Latin America is no longer in search of its expression, to use Henriquez Urena’s felicitious phrase-we may now claim  that Latin America now possesses an authentic expression, one that is uniquely civilized, exciting, and…perennial” (Flores 192). I’m automatically skeptical about any claim of an “authentic voice.” Earlier, Flores claims that magical realists “do not cater to a popular taste…logically conceived [plots],” and makes a number of other assertions about magical realist writers that I think are open to debate. Of course, I think that part of this may be due to when Flores article was written-before the advent of discourse about postcolonialism, postmodernism, marginalized voices, etc. and I think this is reflected in the language of his article. 

I do think that postcolonial theory (which is starting to finally incorporate elements of postmodernism, rather than taking an oppositional position) applies to several aspects of the book, most notably the relationships mentioned above and by Susannah earlier. There are other, more oblique references to colonialism-Cameroon and, well, Cameroon being one of the most obvious examples-but also in the relationship between Mexico and America and the flower pickers/flower corporation-perhaps not strictly colonialism but capitalistic colonialism (for example, the flower corporation’s appropriation of El Monte’s water supply is a really interesting passage). 

I looked up some mythology about the planet, hoping that I would find something revealing about Plascencia’s choice of Saturn, but only found Greek, Roman, and some Hebrew myths. I’m interested if anyone has insight into Latin American planetary mythology and whether that might have something to do with his choice.

Postmodern Magical Realism

The essay by Flores was really shocking to me in its own unquestioned assumption of authority, scathing critique, and, well, stereotyping. Is this just a ’50’s thing?? It was hard to get past for me. The history of magical realism and its evolution as a reaction to realism is useful, however, in putting magical realism into a larger context among genres, and in putting The People of Paper in a larger context of magical realist works. When Flores states that “The practitioners of magical realism cling to reality as if to prevent ‘literature’ from getting in their way, as if to prevent their myth from flying off, as in fairy tales, to supernatural realms” (191), it seems as if it is only a matter of prose style that separates magical realism from both literary dreck and other genres such as urban fantasy. (Although in the case of urban fantasy, the markers of elves and fairies would probably force it to be categorized as such, even if it were written in the most bleak and spare realist style.)

Recently, my friend got into an impromptu conversation with another girl about what qualifies a work as magical realism. My friend was frustrated that she could not explain to the girl that no, Harry Potter did not qualify as magical realism. I suggested to her that if the characters defined something as magic, then the text wasn’t magical realism, which seemed to work as a guideline for me. However, reading Flores and his more stylistic definition, I wonder how he would differentiate between magical realism and fantasy – or science fiction, which is often written in a more realist style but can still contain unexplained prophesying like Baby Nostradamus’. Apart from the typical content markers of science fiction and fantasy (space ships, wizards, etc.), one of the things that sets them apart from magical realism is their attempt at explanation of the impossible (through magic and science). Flores highlights how Kafka and Camus and other magical realist writers never explain the impossible premise of their tales, but simply move on with the realistic implications of that premise.

Apart from these signs of magical realism, The People of Paper’s postmodernist markers of multivocality, heteroglossia, intrusion of the author, foregrounding the narrative construction, and playful spirit are all present in the style. I found this multivocality much easier to read than House of Leaves’, and especially the ending, with Little Merced and Frederico de la Fe walking off the page (with Baby Nostradamus’ assurances that he knew all the characters’ lives outside the bounds of the novel) made me feel more invested in their characterization. It was odd but when the author revealed himself halfway through I began to feel frustrated, as if the fate of the characters somehow didn’t matter anymore because their construction was *foregrounded*. (Of course all fiction is constructed, but I guess I like to pretend?) However the end seemed to revert to Plascencia as an unreliable narrator with an incomplete view, paradoxically declaring victory only to be distracted by thoughts of his lost love and giving characters the power to walk off his page. As an aside, Saturn and Frederico’s view of men spurred to great achievements only because they suffered the pain of a lost love reminded me of what Russ said about the Whileawayans’ lifelong achievements motivated by the childhood pain of being separated from their mothers.

Syntax and Semantics

Looking at form, The People of Paper has many characteristics of the House of Leaves.  The text does not limit itself to a traditional format or even a single column down the page.  It breaks into seemingly concurrent narratives, each column clearly denoted with its own heading.  The narratives are amended with blackouts and strikethroughs which emphasize the text’s self-awareness as well as the feeling of being in real time, keeping pace with characters’ thoughts and feeling and the revision of these thoughts and feelings.  Incidentally, the typographic revisions also inject emotion.  Instead of writing “And for Liz who taught me that we are all of paper,” Saturn writes, “For Liz who fucked everything” (Palscencia 122).  This statement, identical to the book’s dedication page, contributes to the metanarrative and informs it in a new way.  When we reflect on the dedication page, is there a sense that it will be revised or that it was revised and then returned to its original state?  Is there a feeling of tenderness or hostility?  Again, this calls to mind the House of Leaves’ dedication page, “This is not for you.”  How do we read that?  Is it a static warning?  Is it written with light-heartedness or hostility?  Regardless, the fact that we are considering the dedication page at all is quite postmodern.

Salvador Plascencia excels in his use of grammar and tense.  Like many other Spanish writers, he does not submit to a singular tense; rather, the narratives interweave the past (e.g. 91), present (e.g. 181), future (e.g. 118), and conditional (e.g. 180) tense, expressing the complex relationship between these spheres.  Moreover, Plascencia does not feel clausal shame.  His sentences are inundated with modifiers:  “In the bathtub, while his toes thawed and Cameroon sat in the next room reading impossible books about capturing birds with peppers and salt, Saturn dialed” (236).  By allowing himself the syntactical space, he gains a panoramic lens.

In the tradition of South American writers like Marquez and Borges, he does not fear passive voice.  He does not seem to fret over “telling” his story.  Consequently, he retains a sense of authorial power in the text-above and beyond the metanarrative.  The passive voice evokes a history of story-telling and oral tradition.  In doing so, he points to the power of the narrative in everyday life:  the stories that we tell ourselves and our responsibility in constructing these stories:

Saturn concentrated on the future, staring at her finger and the way it seemed to hover the longest over the ringed planet, and then looked at her face, wondering what it would be like to touch her Gypsy hair again, to wake in her bed and taste her paper lips and write love letters complete with graphs and charts on her paper skin as she slept, so she would wake and say, ‘You wrote all this for me?’ and Saturn would simply nod. (245)

From a thematic perspective, The People of Paper lands antithetical to the House of Leaves.  While Danielewski would have us believe that we have no control over our own narratives, Plascencia emphasizes the pursuit of narrative control rather than end result of that struggle.

“The darker the news, the grander the narrative.”

I think Mao II is a perfect example of postmodernist writing thematically albeit not so much in its form. While I do not think that Delillo uses a writing style or structure that is viewed as “traditionally postmodern” (sounds like an oxymoron because postmodern writing is supposed to be innovative and defy any restrictive rules of form and function), I do think that the subject matter of this novel is distinctly postmodern in that it presents the stories of characters who live in a postindustrial and postmodern world and are seduced by the metanarrative of consumerism, where media images are constantly idolized and accepted as representations of objective truth.

The novel’s recurrent allusions to news and advertisements on TV and the pervasive influence of the images they produce is really interesting especially as it relates to crowds and groupthink (in the end leading to a cult mentality). I also found the idea of writer as commodity both fascinating and frightening. Bill repeatedly shares his opinion of the “cult” of writers, and he admits to Brita that he is has “become someone’s material” (43). This view is substantiated by the fact that Bill’s identity is represented as a objectified commodity—in terms of what writings he has produced: “There were reviews of Bill’s novels, interviews with former colleagues and acquaintances […] stacks of magazines and journals containing articles about Bill’s work and about his disappearance, his concealment, his retirement, his alleged change of identity, his rumored suicide, his return to work, his work-in-progress, his death, his rumored return […] booklength studies of Bill’s work and work about his work” (31). With all this trouble that writers go through to publicize their works and yet remain reticent about their private lives, you would think that their influence extends far and wide and that they are respected and admired; however, Delillo argues the exact opposite.

In one of the most interesting discussions that takes place in the novel between Bill and Brita, Bill points to the destructive effect of the commoditization of the writer—writers no longer have the power to “alter the inner life of the culture” (41). Now, people can only be influenced by brutal acts of terror that “make raids on human consciousness [because] News of disaster is the only narrative people need” (41). Another really important idea in the novel) is when Brita discusses terror as “the only meaningful act” in a society where meanings and messages are superfluous and overwhelming in depth and extensiveness: “There’s too much everything, more things than we can use in ten thousand lifetimes. Inertia-hysteria. Is history possible? Is anyone serious? Who do we take seriously? Only the lethal believer, the one who kills and dies for faith. Everything else is absorbed” (157). In this seminal paragraph, Delillo points out to the reader a number of interesting questions that relate to this idea of terror as the only “real” thing in the context of media produced for the masses. As I was thinking about this statement and about the different characters’ journeys within the novel as a whole, it occurred to me that maybe Delillo is making a deeper statement about the existential nature of society as a whole—a person has to choose either to submit entirely to a higher power, or to a painful and reclusive life alone void of any moral direction. Bill Gray, represented as the antihero in the novel, clearly suffers from this lack of guidance as well as Karen who never successfully breaks free from cult; they both represent the resulting loss of a society that has abandoned this idea of objective truth. Hence, by focusing specifically on the metanarrative of consumerism, Delillo is emphasizing its futility and meaninglessness especially when placed within the grander and darker narrative of life and death.