The Coast of Chicago
Magical realism, that flamboyant, out-of-town cousin of fictional realism, has always confounded me. I mean the term confound as in, how did the writer make that fabulous thing happen? One moment a barber in St. Petersburg is sitting down to breakfast and the next finds a nose in his loaf of bread. Or, a man is riding an elevator and suddenly he’s regurgitating a rabbit. I would love to write such things and hope one day I will. In the meantime, 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.” Without quite naming it that way, it turns out that fait accompli is the thing I’ve loved, that in magical realism the fabulous just simply happens, while 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 Dybek’s classic collection The Coast of Chicago, about three Chicago outsiders 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.