In part I of my discussion of the possibilities of magic realism as a fruitful mode for Mormon fiction writers, I brought up two complications that, at least for me, muddied the project. First, the fuzziness of the label “magic realism,” especially when transferred from the group of Latin American writers and particular mid-20th century works that led to initial category to other literatures. Second, the problem of the “naturalness” of the Mormon events/actions/figures that are often mentioned as possible sources of “magic” — the Three Nephites et al.
To restate the second point a bit: I think part of the enthusiasm among Mormon literary types for the category of magic realism is that it seems to be a way to create narratives where Mormon beliefs — both religious and folk — are treated seriously. Not only would/do such narratives reflect the Mormon experience in a ‘good’ way, they also then fit into a category that is treated seriously by the literary world.
In part I, I question whether or not such narratives would be accepted as magic realist narratives. I suppose at this point I should dig into the literary criticism — discuss how the term is defined and applied. I have read a little of it in the past — enough to know that it is a term in contention and that its definition as a literary mode really depends on what texts a particular critic is in to.
So my preference is to ground this discussion in texts — starting with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s often anthologized and taught “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” It leads to a very different definition or view of magic realism, but I will bring the discussion back around to Mormon literature by comparing it [I am a comparatist by training, after all] to Neal Chandler’s story “The Last Nephite.”
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is about exactly what the title suggests. An old man with wings shows up one day in the muddy courtyard of a poor Catholic family in a small Latin American coastal town. No one is sure what to make of him. He doesn’t seem like a real angel. In addition to his wings, the only other remarkable thing about him is that he speaks a language no one else can understand. He experiences some moments of renown brought on by curiosity and the possibility of miraculous healings (miracles do happen, but in a grotesquely funny manner) — and the family gets rich charging money to see him. The local priest tries to get a statement from Rome on the nature of the old man, but that gets tied up in esoteric debates. Finally, a new freak arrives in town and the old man is forgotten, left to languish in a dirty, decrepit chicken coop, his wings reduced to cannulae. The old man survives a winter with the family, re-grows his wings, and one day in early spring flies away.
Although no exact location or time period is given, the narrative seems to be located in historical time. That “magic” element in the narrative is the presence of the old man. But he is a baffling presence. The magic is not, for example, an appearance by the Blessed Virgin or an exorcism or something else rooted within the supernatural possibilities allowed by Catholic doctrine (even folk doctrine). In fact, the old man presents a problem for the Church — a subject for doctrinal debate rather than a wonderful manifestation of the power of God to be sanctioned and publicized.
This type of magic realism where the magical element is a baffling one poses a challenge for the category of Mormon magic realism — a challenge that is illustrated by Neal Chandler’s “The Last Nephite.”
Stay tuned for part III.