Thursday, September 11, 2008

The New Magical Realism

I've been thinking about cultural/style terms and how I really often don't know what they mean. This came to mind because I realized, watching Project Runway last night, that I'm not 100% sure what avant-garde means in the context of fashion. And now that I'm thinking about it, while I usually know magical realism when I see it, I'm not sure I can describe it to you.

The first thing I think of is Like Water for Chocolate, which I'm pretty sure is a great example of the concept: it's not fantasy at all, the setting is clearly, solidly historical, but there are touches of mysticism and magic. They're not explicit, though--this is not an alternate reality, but rather a reality infused with mystery and the general impression that the possibility behind the ordinary has taken one step closer to the foreground.

So here's the question: is Matt Ruff's Bad Monkeys magical realism? I don't think so, but it's something and I don't have another word for it. In the modern world, this woman is part of a covert organization that works to fight evil. There are strange, sci fi aspects--the NC gun (people shot with it die of natural causes)--and merely unlikely aspects--when Jane needs to contact the organization, she picks up any phone and there's a good chance someone's listening. The organization doesn't seem to make a lot of sense (at her first meeting with her boss, he's wearing a cheerleader's uniform, to make any story she might decide to tell unbelievable), or be very likely.

Is this magical realism? There's the sense of the mystery beyond what you see, the possibility of things you might call impossible. But the fact that it's a bureaucracy, not something beyond nature--does that violate the "rules"? Does it matter that the framework of the story involves Jane being questioned by a psychiatrist who doesn't believe her story--does the potential for an unreliable narrator make the story something besides magical realism?

And, on a different subject, were any of those clothes on Project Runway last night actually avant-garde?

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