Magical Realism and A Floating Life

My novel, A Floating Life, has been described as bringing “South American magical realism to twenty-first century America.” Novels using magical realism have a realistic story but also incorporate magical elements that are not at all realistic. For example, in A Floating Life, the nameless narrator is separated from his wife and seeking a new job. His search for a new apartment is realistic enough, except that the real estate agent offers him a golden cage for an apartment in a building that is being constructed to a depth of fifty or a hundred floors beneath the earth. His interview for a new job is conducted by a chef with one eye in the center of his head. The chef stands seven feet tall and the interview is in the unbearable heat of a steam room.

These departures from an otherwise realistic (if unusual) story aren’t questioned by the narrator. It is typical in magical realism that the incorporation of magical elements is done without any explanation of the magic. The characters simply accept that the magic is part of the otherwise realistic world they inhabit. Such magical elements might include people who live far longer than a normal life span, levitation, telekinesis, telepathy, time travel, and similar devices that are woven without comment into the narrative. In this way magical realism distances itself from the scientific method, Cartesian logic, and the rational mindset that has lost contact with the mythic stories so much a heritage of the human race.

In A Floating Life the narrator finds a mentor, an elderly Dutchman named Pecheur who makes model boats and displays them in a shop called The Floating World. This shop lacks signage and can’t be found on the Internet. As the narrator considers becoming Pecheur’s apprentice, he is confronted by a dachshund who says, “I’ve brought the lawsuit against you for your own good.” Rather than not believing that a dog can talk, the narrator is upset by the thought of “painful hours of preparation and years passed in uncertainty.” Further on in the novel, Pecheur wants to travel to a volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean that is as far from civilization as can be imagined. Pecheur dies, but the narrator decides to go in his place. After this, in the middle of the night, four bears enter his apartment. The bears explain that by eating the narrator, he will become more like a bear and they will become more human. “But you’re bears!” the narrator responds. “Better to say that we’re not fully bears,” the largest bear replies, “and you’re not fully human.”

Magical realism lends itself to describing the human condition. So much that is true for us rests not on the logical realities of our life situation, but has as its foundation the larger myths and images familiar to humankind for untold generations. These are imaginative truths that transcend quotidian facts. When these myths and images come into our consciousness, we feel challenged. Our realistic world view isn’t sufficient to contain Odysseus entering the underworld, Perseus slaying snake-haired Medusa whose gaze turned men to stone, and the healing god Aesclepius restoring the dead to life. The dachshund’s lawsuit challenges the narrator’s narrow view of the world and his own potentialities. Later, in following his mentor’s quest, the narrator dies to what he once was. So he is devoured by the bears and yet continues his journey, his story.

Magical realism relies on both its realistic narrative and the fantastic departures that are magical. So it is easy to distinguish from realistic fiction that lacks the wondrous qualities of the magical. And also easy to distinguish from fantasy or science fiction that depends on the fantastic or otherworldly and lacks the realistic. It might be argued that the chapters in A Floating Life that present fantastical elements should actually be called surreal. This is because those parts of the book deal not with tangible or material reality but with the inner life and truths of the psyche. But I think the tent of magical realism is large enough to contain a man who gives birth or a goddess with the power to give life.

Magical realism is like a shape shifter. One moment it is real, the next magical. To create with the ability to move from the realistic to the magical is a marvelous and frightening freedom. It makes anything possible (as long as that anything works in the context of the fiction). So I approached A Floating Life with a willingness to take risks that required leaps of faith. Sometimes this resulted in writing that had to be cut from the final manuscript. But the risk-taking also allowed unexpected departures and delights that make accessible what may be new and therefore strange. As Kirkus Reviewsopined, “At times Crawford seems to be channeling Kafka or Borges . . . Odd. Offbeat. Strangely shimmering.”

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