Full disclosure, initially, I planned for something slightly different for this month’s column. I wanted to present books that fell under the literary sub-genre of “Magical Realism”. With a significant population of the world still at home, I thought we could all appreciate some surreal escapism. However, after sitting with this month’s texts day after day, I could not, in good consciousness, strictly call them all magical realism. If anything, some fit more onto the speculative fiction side of the spectrum (I should note, the distinction between the two sub-genres is quite interesting and something I am looking to delve deeper into in a follow-up column to give the distinction justice.) For now, though, in the simplest of layman’s terms, magical realism is where fantastical events or tropes infect a world that seemingly mirrors our real one. In contrast, speculative fiction speculates on how the world would change if we add science fiction, fantastical or horror tropes. See the overlap? What that being said, I will do my best to point out which of the two genres this month’s books fit into.
“The Lonesome Bodybuilder” - Yukiko Motoya
Motoya is big in Japan. A playwright, stage director and, of course, novelist, “The Lonesome Bodybuilder”, a collection of stories, is her English language debut. Motoya’s stories are hyper surreal, featuring monsters, shapeshifters and in the titular opening story, a tiny, meek housewife who becomes a solid as rock bodybuilder. She does her training regimen, consumes protein powders and spends hours at the gym, all while her clueless husband fails to notice any change in his wife.
Clueless husbands and men and meek housewives are a reoccurring element in these 11 stories. The best example lies in the collection’s longest and most impressive story, “An Exotic Marriage”, where a young housewife notices her husband’s facial features sliding around on his head. Not only that, but her own face begins to morph into what her husband’s used to look like, and this is far from the only couple experiencing this phenomenon.
Beautiful and haunting, “An Exotic Marriage” also displays Motoya’s use of both feminism and body horror to speculate on and satirize a culture that sees women as blank vessels, something that is a common theme throughout “The Lonesome Bodybuilder”. In “I Called You by Name”, the leader of a boardroom meeting is afraid she will lose all the credibility she has as the supervisor of an all-male team after she swears something, or someone is standing behind a curtain at a meeting. Is it a ghost? Or, maybe an ex-lover? The narrator tries to figure it out while her employees give their presentations.
Or, in “How to Burden the Girl”, where the male protagonist fantasizes about his new next-door neighbor. She has pink hair, green eyes and cries tears of blood, and the narrator has his theories about the girl’s origins. He swears, she is a ninja, fighting alongside her father and younger brothers to ward off an evil witch and her gang. However, the truth turns out to be a whole lot stranger.
One last example and another standout is “The Women”, a horror story of sorts (depending on your perspective) about a group of women in a village who painfully transform into a hyper-sexualized, vampire-like, lusty ideal of a man’s perfect woman. They grow high heels from their bare feet, secrete red lipstick from their newly voluptuous lips and grow claw-like fingernails. The women in “The Women” then take their boyfriends down to a river, where once and for all, they’ll do battle.
“The Lonesome Bodybuilder” is speculative fiction at its best, challenging modern society by wondering what would happen if only things were just slightly different.
“Vampires in the Lemon Grove: And Other Stories”- Karen Russell
If Motoya’s fiction sits on the speculative end of the spectrum, Russell’s fits squarely on the magical realism side. Instead of speculating on and enhancing a minute detail to show the absurdity in society, Russell transforms elements of our world, morphing them into something preternatural.
Unlike in a genre like fantasy or science fiction, the characters in this collection spend little to no time marveling at or explaining the strange nature of their world. Strange is considered normal in “Vampires in the Lemon Grove: And Other Stories”.
Take “Reeling for the Empire”, another fine piece of body horror. The story takes place in an increasingly industrializing Japan. In this version of Japanese history, women are turned into silkworms after they are sold into servitude by either their husband or father. They live in a sweatshop and are forced to painfully pull silk from the veins to make garments in service of the empire.
For Russell, in “Vampires in the Lemon Grove: And Other Stories”, time and setting act as a structure for her to weave her narratives. In using specific and distinctive time periods, Russell can set up and subvert our expectations.
One would expect a vampire story to take place in a grey, dark and rainy part of the world, not in sunny southern Italy, like in the story “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.” Instead of consuming human blood, the vampires, a husband and wife, live off of lemons.
One of the collection’s standout features is “The Barn at the of Our Term”, a Kafkaesque story about Rutherford B. Hayes and several other dead former U.S. presidents reincarnating into the bodies of different horse breeds.
“American Street”- Ibi Zoboi
Ibi Zoboi’s 2017 novel about a young Haitian immigrant living in Detroit with her aunt and three cousins has only a light dusting of magical realism. Still, what magic there is in the text has a great impact on the plot.
At the beginning of the novel, Fabiola’s mother is detained by immigration services on their arrival into the U.S. Distressed, and missing her mother, Fabiola has to enter a strange new world all on her own. Living in a house on the corner of American Street and Joy Road, Fabiola must fight to keep her Haitian roots alive, all the while integrating into her new American life.
“American Street” almost plays out like a familiar fairytale. Fabiola has three loud, expressive cousins who constantly make fun of her, but protect her when push comes to shove. Her aunt, who Fabiola wants to call “Matant Jo”, Matant meaning aunt in Haitian Creole, forbids her from speaking the language she grew up with and cherishes so much. If this all sounds like an ordinary story of a young immigrant coming of age, that’s because, in a sense, that’s what “American Street” is, except, however, for the stark presence of several “lwas”, spirits in Haitian Vodou culture. One of these lwas is “Papa Legba”, an intermediary of sorts between the living and spirit worlds. In the disguise of an old homeless man, Legba acts as Fabiola’s guide through the underbelly of Detroit as she goes up against her cousins’ boyfriend Dray, who might have his own secret identity.
In “American Street”, Zoboi deftly weaves the undercurrent of magical realism into this harrowing tale of a daughter and the love she has for her mother.
“Killing Commendatore”- Haruki Murakami
Of course, no list on or associated with magical realism would be complete without Murakami, the renowned Japanese author is an almost cult-like figure in the literary world. Those who love Murakami do so with absolute adoration, and while he does have his critics—the way he writes about women and sex can be a bit uncomfortable—no one can argue he isn’t one the most important modern authors today.
In his 2018 novel, “Killing Commendatore, Murakami embarks on his most exhaustive effort to date. Clocking in a just shy of 700 pages and packed with prose as dense as tangled ivy, the book is not for impatient readers. “Killing Commendatore” takes its time doling out its mysterious plot.
The novel centers around a middle-aged portrait painter who secludes himself in a mountain property in rural Japan after separating from his wife. The house the artist now lives in once belonged to the acclaimed painter and father of an art school classmate, Tomohiko Amada. Slowly but surely, eerie and unexplained phenomenon start to occur for the narrator. First, there’s the titular painting “Killing Commendatore”, which is hidden away in a secret attic compartment, almost like it was never meant to be found.
Then there’s the narrator’s mysterious neighbor Wataru Menshiki, who requests the narrator paint his portrait, however, the narrator soon hears through the jungle grapevines that this Menshiki might not be just any ordinary man.
Much of the fun of “Killing Commendatore” is piecing together what exactly is going on yourself as you try to figure out what’s real and what isn’t, so I won’t go further in revealing anything about the plot to avoid any potential spoilers.
By: Gregory Bertrand