Criticism: Mormon magic realism?

Read: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Damon Linker’s post over at Times & Seasons on PoMo Mormon Enchantment has drawn a lot of great comments including one by Rob on the possibility of Mormon literature written in the on magic realist mode. This idea of magic realism being a natural mode of literature for Mormonism comes up from time to time. The appeal as I understand it is that because magic realism was pioneered by South American Catholic (believing or not) writers as a mode of literature and features seemingly supernatural (“magic”) actions or beings embedded in a realist narrative, it would seem to be a good fit for Mormon writers. After all, like Catholics, we believe in an “enchanted” world — to borrow the term from Linker.

I see a couple of complications.

First: As is their wont, literary critics have stretched and strained and misapplied and muddied the definition of magic realism to a point where one wonders how useful it is. At its’ most reductive level, any narrative written after, say, 1950 that seems to be “literary” fiction but contains fantastical elements is hit with the magic realism label.

For example, Eugene England says about Orson Scott Card’s work [and I think he has specifically in mind her Card’s excellent Alvin Maker series] that it is “what might be called, on the model of Latin American novelists, “magic realism.” (Eugene England. “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects.” See paragraph 54.). Yes, England throws in the qualifier “might,” but from my point of view Card is clearly writing in the speculative fiction modes of fantasy (Alvin Maker, Saints) and science fiction (Ender, etc.). What he is doing is quite different from the Latin American novelists.

Second: As Clark Goble points out in a response to an earlier post by Linker on enchantment, Mormonism’s “enchantment is a double move in which the enchantment is naturalized and made ‘normal.'” Granted this was in a philosophical context, but I think it has a literary application as well. Insofar as Mormon magic realism manifests itself in narratives where the “magical” elements are actually natural or ‘normal’ (albeit perhaps not entirely common) Mormon phenomena (such as speaking in tongues, angelic appearances, healings, etc.), it is no longer, in my opinion, magic realism. And yet in my experience, when Mormons talk about a Mormon magic realism, these are the phenomena they give as examples. See Rob’s comments linked to above, for instance, where he mentions the Three Nephites and baby resurrections.

This is not to say that such a mode of literature wouldn’t be good for the field of Mormon literature. In fact, I would love to see more natural-supernatural acts occur in Mormon fiction. But such literature does create a weird situation where non-believers would read it as magic realist [although I have my doubts about whether many would be charitable enough to group it in that category — instead I think it would be received as Mormon propaganda] and Mormons would read it as, well, realist.

NEXT: I’ll explore this topic further in a couple of days by taking a close look at two short stories that are examples of magic realism — “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Latin American writer and the godfather of magic realism Gabriel GarciĀ­a Marquez and “The Last Nephite” by Mormon author Neal Chandler.

4 thoughts on “Criticism: Mormon magic realism?”

  1. There was an article in Dialogue back around 2000 positing that MB Young’s novel Salvador was Mormon Magic Realism. Card’s Lost Boys, too.

    Jeff Needle on AML-List just reviewed Paris Anderson’s new book The Sisters Kennsington, and says that the cover identifies it as “Magical Realism”.

  2. Thanks, Andrew. I had heard about Salvador, but not about the other works — and have read none of them yet.

    Looks like there’s going to need to be a part III. (Part II is still in the works).

Comments are closed.