Thursday, February 28, 2008

Karen Russell, Magic Realism and the Kingdom

If you haven’t heard of Karen Russell you should take yourself down to Powell’s and pick up a copy of her debut short story collection, “St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves.” I borrowed a copy from Van around this time last year and have read and reread it so many times I’m hoping to claim ownership. The short stories which make up Russell’s collection are the most captivating, beautiful, imaginative little nuggets of joy I’ve stumbled across in the last few years. They draw deeply from an immense creative reserve and introduce us to the most incredible characters including a class full of werewolves in training for suburban life, a camp of kids with various sleeping disorders, a minotaur and his family making their way along the wagon trail and an ice skating Yeti. So far so classic fantasy but the thing that makes Karen Russell’s writing so uniquely intriguing is the fact that all these fantastical stories are couched in terms of reality.

Karen Russell is the latest in a long line of modern writers loosely associated with the genre of Magic Realism, (including Aimee Bender, Jonathan Leathem, Jonathan Saffron Foer and the wonderful Japanese writer Haruki Murakami,) who have drawn first my attention and upon closer investigation, my ongoing devotion. Magic Realism as a genre hangs upon the basic need for the suspension of disbelief. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, writer of “Love in the Time of Cholera,” and many other pieces of fantastic imagination stretching literature once admitted, “my most important problem was destroying the lines of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic." It is this blurring of realism and the fantastic that draws me to Magic Realism and drives me as a writer to create stories which most easily fall into this genre. Where fantasy creates entire new worlds; kingdoms, creatures and languages, Magic Realism is set in the real world with a realist view of the possible and impossible. However the lines of possibility are quickly smudged, blurred and often done away with entirely as weird things happen, the unlikely becomes increasingly likely and an odd kind of magic bubbles to the surface of the real world. Reading Murakami or Saffron Foer for the first time one might be fifty odd pages into a straight up piece of fiction, comfortable and relaxed with the status quo, when a talking cat or disappearing villages pops up to unsettle your resolve. The effect is both disarming and intriguing and more often than not leaves the reader hungry for a fresh miracle.

I choose to read and write Magic Realism because it appeals to the little girl in me; the part of my soul not yet world-weary enough to have developed presuppositions about what is and is not possible in this world. As I read some of these novels and stories I am constantly reminded of Christ’’s desire that we become like little children, not so we are overly simplistic or ignorant about the world we find ourselves in but so we can once again have a limitless sense of the possibilities afforded to us by the Kingdom of God. To read these texts and enter into them is to understand a little of the world view Jesus established when he pointed out the mountains and said how easily they could be moved with his help, when he stood on a fishing boat and controlled the storm or threatened to build and rebuild the Temple in three days. Christianity is a kind of Magic Realism in itself. We live in this world with all its temporal limitations, fully aware of the possibilities of God’s infinite power and creativity.

Moreso I have come to love Magic Realism because of its need to suspend disbelief. Nick Drake, the folk musician, once sang of, “straightening our new mind’s eye,” and this line has always made me think of Jesus’ command to repent and believe. I believe that this command though encapsulating our need to turn from sin, goes beyond right and wrong, to a place where God desires us to believe in an entirely new way of seeing the world. The Kingdom of God is with us now, hovering over the surface of everything we do and see, just waiting to break in and startle us with the amazing, miraculous, bigness of God. As I read these books I am challenged to “straighten my new mind’s eye,” and begin to see the beautiful possibilities for miracles, for wild imagination, hope and transformation just waiting for an opportunity to break into our reality.

Jan Carson blogs at

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