Before we plunge into defining magical realism, let's unpack those two terms. What comes to mind when you think "magical" as a genre of fiction? We immediately flash to The Lord of the Rings and all the fantasy wands-and-dragons stuff it inspired. You know, a full-on magical world, where nothing is like our own universe, and people thumb their noses at the laws of physics and biology because they can.
Now, when you think "realist" fiction, what pops into your head? Maybe something along the lines of Tolstoy's War and Peace or Eliot's Middlemarch. You know, where real people with real feelings and actions are described faithfully to show us what our world is really like. Really.
When you mash these two genres together, you end up with the sparkly gem that is magical realism. To get a sense of what's different about it, let's take an example from One Hundred Years of Solitude. Remember that terrible rainstorm in the middle of the novel, right after the banana company massacre? When it rains, nonstop, every single day, for five years straight? Obviously the five-year rainstorm is totally fantastical, since it can't happen in real life without breaking the laws of meteorology.
In a purely magical book, how would this rain be dealt with? The characters would probably have to fight back against it with magic, possibly setting out on a quest to seek some magical restorative item. When the reverse magic was finally activated, the rain would most likely have had no particular effect – magic tends to be easily undone.
But check out how this novel treats the results of the rainstorm. We get exactly what would happen to a real place if it were under that much water for that long. The characters are wet and don't want to go outside. They have no idea what to do to get food, since no crops are growing and all the animals are dying from hunger. The buildings, roads, and everything manmade is completely destroyed. The magic is treated as just a straight-up fact of life. That's the combination of magic and reality that defines this genre and makes it awesome.
Historic changes have always given rise to new literary genres. In the eighteenth century, with the rise of democracy, fiction began to concern itself with regular people rather than just noble or royal characters. In the nineteenth century, the steady rise of industrial production and scientific inquiry resulted in the new genres of the detective story and science fiction. In any case, magical realism is no different. You might say that there was a sudden mid-century sense that reason had stopped functioning and that the world was brutally chaotic and random. (The two World Wars might have something to do with this.)
Is there a similar transformation taking place today? Is the non-linear, hyperlinked nature of the Internet being reflected in the kinds of fiction we produce? Or is there an opposite reaction to reach back to an older, more ordered kind of narrative as a way to get away from this aspect of modern life? Can you think of some examples?
If this thing isn't a family drama, we don't know what is. Seriously, could this family be any more dysfunctional and self-destructive? They'd have to be just full-on hacking each other up with machetes or something to top the kinds of damage they inflict on each other and themselves in this novel. And that wouldn't really be such a great book, would it?
The novel chronicles several generations of a family, from its hopeful and optimistic rise to the depressing and mostly self-inflicted fall that the family suffers as each successive generation descends further and further into selfish and narcissistic behavior. We see the qualities of parents reflected in their children, usually twisted into increasingly demented versions of those traits. When new people come into the family, instead of injecting new blood and ideas into the mix, they are infected by the insanity that reins over the house.
Finally, of course, the novel is a tragedy. In the strictest, most formal sense of this word as a literary term, everyone who appears in the novel comes to a terrible, grisly end, usually as a result of their own correctible flaws. By the last page, every character we have met is dead.
The novel is also a tragedy in the looser definition of the word, in that it's one long account of wasted potential. As we watch the way the energetic and purposeful ambitions of each family member morph into useless, repetitive, and usually meaningless activity, we can't help but feel sad for the loss of human power that the book describes.