Magical Realism

This post is not on the schedule. I just needed to rant a bit about something somewhat fantasy-related, and this seemed like a good place to do it.

This week I had to read João Guimarães Rosa’s short story “The Third Bank of the River” for a class. This story belongs to a genre known as “magical realism“. This is a strange and broadly defined genre which in some cases is clearly like fantasy but in others is not. Its broadest definition is when magical, supernatural, or otherwise illogical elements blend with a clearly realistic, logical world. The results can be… strange.

So what counts as magical realism? Well, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis does, for one. Realistic world, completely illogical and inexplicable event. Does it count as fantasy? Sort of. But not the type of fantasy that I like or am interested in.

Going back to “Third Bank”, the things that happen in that story (which I don’t think I can even summarize) are bizarre, illogical, and pointless. And they’re meant to be. See, the reason magical realism became so popular was part of a backlash against Western ideals of literature. Since the 19th century, the Western world has been obsessed with the rational, the logical, and the orderly. Everything needs to have a point and a reason. “Third Bank” is the antithesis of this. It’s like… a story about a type of story.  It demands that the reader be in the ‘third bank’, a place beyond or between the fantastic and the logical. It’s carefully crafted and written… and makes me want to punch something every time I read it.

Remember my Info Desk? I said there that my first goal in my absorption of media is to be entertained. Magical realism (at least most of it) doesn’t do it for me.

It’s not the illogicality that bothers me, since fantasy is all about things that can’t happen in the world. I mean, in Harry Potter people can transform into animals, completely defying the law of conservation of mass (among others), and I can accept it without batting an eye, because it’s a consistent rule that has been established in that universe. It doesn’t have to make real-world logical sense as long as I can suspend my disbelief. It’s fantasy.

No, the first main problem I have with magical realism is the dissonance between the characters and the events. The whole point of magical realism is that it’s supposed to be set in a realistic world. And then you get stuff like Gregor Samsa changing into a giant bug and having the extremely understated reaction of “how am I going to get to work this way?” The characters aren’t zombies or robots. They’re supposed to be real people who act realistically. And yet they act as if nothing really fantastic or illogical has happened. This is very creepy.

However, I can even overcome all of that as long as the story holds my attention. Unfortunately, a lot of magical realism is supposed to be allegorical. The characters aren’t real people, they’re symbols. The events occurring are not literal. Now, most allegorical stories kinda rank really, really high on my list of ‘pretentious garbage I won’t touch’. The reason for that is ‘they’re really really boring’. Even if I like their message, or what they’re trying to represent, it’s all useless if it doesn’t catch my interest. There’s no narrative. No development.

And what’s worse, allegorical/magic realism/postmodernist stories don’t have to be dull and underdeveloped. They can be entertaining and thought-provoking as well! The catch is that you need a good story that you can enjoy for the literal meaning and appreciate on a deeper level for the allegorical meaning.

There are some fantasy works that I have chosen not to cover for this blog. Most are non-Western fantasy based on Japanese mythology, since most of my readers probably won’t be familiar with it. The others are stuff that’s so… strange… that I’m not even sure how to review or recommend them.

Revolutionary Girl Utena falls in the latter category. It’s a deconstruction of the shojo genre (Princess Tutu has been described as ‘Utena lite’) that also happens to have allegorical and magical realism elements. Dissonance between people and events, symbolism popping out of every frame, bizarre scenes that go nowhere, an inconclusive ending… roses everywhere… the car… and the elevators with the mausoleum plots… the arena full of desks and the outlines of bodies…

This picture is here to break up the text. Yes, it’s raining rose petals.

…Sorry, got distracted there. Anyway, as you can see, Utena has pretty much all the things I despised in other magical realism stories. Aaand it just so happens to be one of my favorite anime series of all time. Wait, what?

See, here’s what Utena has that all those other things didn’t: stunning visual and sound presentation, an engaging plot that can be interpreted literally and allegorically, and complex, developed, relatable characters. Plus, they even explain why all of the weird stuff is happening! (At the end of the series, so long after you’ve become completely lost, but still.)

Why can’t more magical realism stories do that? Because The Metamorphosis would have been way less boring if there were sword duels in a giant arena high above a magical forest every chapter. Seriously.


Yikes, this got way too long. Sorry guys, I guess I had a lot to say. I’m done now. Gaiman on Monday!


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Filed under anime, fantasy talk, literature

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