“Her small stature, dark, and wrinkled complexion, and the silken black strands at the corners of her upper lip made her seem to me at times like some ancient monkey king. When she’d fart while standing, she’d kick her left leg up in the back and say: ‘Shoot him in the pants. The Coat and vest are mine.’”
In “The Shadow Year” by Jeffrey Ford
The world-wide craze for superheroes is obvious. We all see ourselves as passive victims and don't expect to rescue ourselves.
There's also the national craze for vampires and zombies in books, TV, movies, and the web. It may seem odd that a deeply Christian country is also obsessed with vampires, but as Joseph Glanvill wrote in the 1600s, if you deny the existence of demons and witches, you deny god. I see it as another form of projection: a few survivors are surrounded by the dead, i.e., the masses of the unemployed and soon-to-be-unemployable. I’m thinking USA here.
Magical realism is a bit like SF, where colorful, fanciful personas, places and technologies are used to explore all too real attitudes, trends and prejudices. It could be said that Ford's take on it is America's second exploration of the genre, since it was also prevalent in the 50's and 60's (and to some extent the 70's) with the proliferation of pulp magazines, SF publications (also the birth of the modern comic book) and SF movies and TV shows (Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, Star Trek). This post war boom was a symptom of America's unease with the new reality of The Bomb, Detente, the Cold War and the Red Menace.
It’s no coincidence that the resurgence of these Magical Realism genres occur at this time, when Americans again feel the ground shifting beneath their feet. American culture has always been hugely imaginative (it's not unique in that, of course) and I see no reason whatsoever why magic realism should be linked to a perceived decline in power.
Unfortunately, many English speakers don't seem to get the fact that magical realism started elsewhere a long time ago: Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Gogol, Bulgakov, Garcia Marquez -- one could go on and on. It's these writers who captured the absurdity of so-called reality and the truths revealed by the so-called magic. Ford, in my mind, is the best American representative of this kind of fiction.
1. Reality and fantasy today have changed places. Was the current Presidential election campaign reality, or fantasy? I'd argue that the campaign and our contemporary dilemmas (watching our "leaders" fiddle while Rome burns) is the latter. So it follows that “The Shadow Years” is addressing reality in the oblique, imaginative way that great art does;
2. Using the imagination is hardly a retreat. It's essential. It's our materialist, fact-centred world, suspicious of everything intangible, that is in full-blown retreat from true imaginative art (as opposed to the manipulative products of Hollywood). The American writer Kathleen Norris brilliantly examines what she calls Americans' fear of metaphor -- hence the rise of fundamentalist, literalist religion.
Ford is most of the time literary and beautiful, but this novel bummed me out. Downbeat and offbeat. Unfortunately I am not in the right phase of my life to love this stuff; but it does not prevent me from seeing what Ford was able to do.
Nevertheless, bring on more Beasts, please!
SF = Speculative Fiction.
SF = Speculative Fiction.