Learning From Television

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2014 at 10:00 am

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I think magical realism may be the next thing. Like how vampires and post-apocalyptic dystopias are a thing. I think maybe magical realism is next.

There have been a growing number of television shows in particular which incorporate elements of magical realism, whether intentionally or otherwise. I’m always leery of attributing magical realism to things that weren’t written that way intentionally, in part because they’re usually written by white men who already had a lot of cultural pull, but it’s hard to deny that the TV show Hannibal has a lot of visual elements of magical realism, and apparently the show True Detective, another new hit, incorporates aspects of it as well.

I get a little conflicted over it. On the one hand it would be great for the genre. Magical Realism is notoriously difficult, and difficult stories taking center stage are good for the literary development of culture. If nothing else, a story too difficult to read teaches us what not to do, and a story that people just think is too difficult to read opens a lot of dialogue about prose structure and technique. On the other hand, if it does take off, I’ll have been the loser who liked it before it was cool and still couldn’t make much money off it. I try to detach the personal, but it’s difficult.

Then again, perhaps the sheer challenge of reading magical realism will prevent the genre from ever gaining a wide audience. Not that I think people can’t cope with it, but a lot of people don’t want to, and why should they? Some days I don’t have the mental bandwidth for Jorge Luis Borges either.

But it’s not just that understanding some stories in magical realism is a struggle — it’s also that it’s difficult, in literary form, to employ it and still allow for action, for the parts that make most books interesting to read. There’s a lot of exposition that goes on in magical realism, and I’m still trying to work out why it’s so necessary, but I think in part it’s because it’s hard to have characters talking about something unusual without expressing how unusual it is. A staple of magical realism is that nobody acknowledges that what’s going on is super fucking weird.

For example, at one point in the show Hannibal, a character in prison temporarily grows antlers. We don’t know if this is meant to really be happening, if it’s a hallucination he’s having, if it’s a visual representation of what his internal feelings are, or if it’s something we’re being shown in order to indicate his state of mind without him having any thought of it. The ambiguity is intriguing and it makes you think carefully about how to read it. But it’s very difficult to write that scene in a novel — to just say, “He sat in his cell, and his antlers grew, black and twisted, towards the ceiling.”

You can do it. Obviously, because I just did. But you want to include all this other exposition about how the antlers were linked to his feelings or what his feelings were or the rest of it. And that is why magical realism often seems tedious despite being a genre essentially filled with strangeness and delight: there’s a shitload of exposition.

It’s something I’ve wrestled with a lot as I’ve tried to write more in the genre — attempting to break away from the exposition-heavy forms that it comes from and write something that is more similar in shape to popular literature. I’m still struggling with it, but perhaps if there are more stories out there like what I want to write — magical, surreal, and popular — I can learn from others who have done it better than I have.

I’m learning a lot from the television, anyway, and that’s a rare and interesting thing.


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