I read a lot. And although these days I often stick to the genre that I myself write in (i.e. YA fantasy) I do try to read widely and deeply in a variety of genres. What this usually means in practice is that in between books I actively seek out, I pick up random books at used bookstores or I take a stab at whatever the husband has just finished reading.
This month, I read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart back to back. While these two books come from very different places topically and thematically, they do share one distinction; they have both been assigned the rather particular designation of magical realism. And as I pondered the metaphysical oceans, metaphorical cats, and mirrored worlds that appear in both of these books under different guises, I couldn’t help but think to myself: What exactly is the difference between magical realism and straight up fantasy?
Many authors and readers don’t see a big difference. Terry Pratchett once quipped that magical realism “is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy.” Gene Wolfe humorously said that “magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish” (referring, of course, to seminal works of magical realism by authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Luis Borges). On the other hand, some critics and readers see a massive difference in terms of literary “quality;” magical realist authors like Murakami, Kafka, and García Márquez have been accepted by critics into the pantheon of literary writers, while major fantasy authors like J. K. Rowling and even Neil Gaiman are solidly considered “genre literature.”
In my mind, I think the difference between the genres comes down to rules. In traditional fantasy, the author presents a whole new universe to the reader, complete with a system of logic, physical laws, and metaphysical laws that must be followed. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind is a great example of a systematic fantasy; the magic his characters employ is bounded by a comprehensive system of checks and balances that rivals real-world physics in complexity.
In magical realism, however, magical elements blend with reality to create an atmosphere that is at once familiar and nonsensical, in an effort to access a deeper understanding of reality. These magical elements are presented in a straightforward manner with no effort made to explain how they could be occurring in the “real” world. In García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, bizarre things like ghosts, heavenly ascensions, insomnia plagues, telekinesis, prophecies and family members returning from the dead are mentioned without consequence or special significance.
In short, fantasy relies on verisimilitude, or the extent to which a narrative appears likely or plausible. Fantasy presents its readers with a strange world that, by merit of its laws, could be real. Magical realism, on the other hand, challenges our knowledge of what is “real” by introducing unlikely or implausible elements to a seemingly normal universe. The world we thought we knew is gone, replaced by a simulacrum, a fake world that, by virtue of its allegorical existence, leads us closer to truth.
There is a continuum, of course. Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind falls on one end of the spectrum, a pure systemic fantasy. Nearly every fantastical element–magic, prophecy, myth–is explained and categorized. Something like Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle exists close to the other end of the spectrum. The author makes almost no effort to explain the fantastical elements; empty wells and missing wives and real dreams exist as perfect allegories, existing insofar as the reader deems them meaningful.
And books like Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife? Those books exist somewhere in the middle, treading the uncanny valley between reality and fantasy.
But let’s be honest; whether it’s pure magical realism, pure fantasy, or somewhere in between, I’ll still read it.
Where do you think the line between fantasy and magical realism is drawn? Do you have any favorite magical realism books or authors? Share your comments below!