One of the best definitions of magical realism I’ve read comes from Debra Spark. In her essay, “Curious Attractions: Magical Realism’s Fate in the States,” Spark spells out what makes the premise both magical and real. If you haven’t read Spark’s essay, in her 2005 collection “Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing,” you should, because everything Spark writes is smart and insightful—and entertaining.
The term magical realism, it turns out, is credited to Latin American critic Angel Flores, first mentioned in a paper presented at the Modern Language Association conference in 1955. As Flores found, and Spark explains, “magical realist stories often had one element that could not be explained away by logic or psychology and once the reader accepted that as a ‘fait accompli, the rest [of the story] follows with logical precision.” It turns out that fait accompli is the thing I’ve loved about the style, that the fabulous just happens, and the narrative follows in accordance, and as Spark says, “adheres to logic and natural law.”
A perfect example turns out to be Stuart Dybek’s contemporary classic “Hot Ice,” collected in his classic short story collection The Coast of Chicago. The centers on three Chicago kids who go looking for a legendary dead virgin, a girl rumored to have years before been frozen in a block of ice by her father after she tragically drowns. “Hot Ice” fits Flores’ criteria for magic realism (and in Curious Attractions garners its own chapter). The virgin in a block of ice cannot be “explained away,” and like so many of Dybek’s stories, moves seamlessly from gritty realism to realism of the incomparably magical sort.
You can read an interview with Stuart Dybek here.