A smattering of words on magical realism and the Scholar of Moab
There is a great sequence in One Hundred Years of Solitude that demonstrates what is meant by the term “magical realism.” Remedios is the most beautiful woman ever born in Macando. So potent is her attractiveness that it can be smelled in the bones of men who have died for her sake. Though she has brought men to ruin and death, she is herself blissfully unconcerned with all that happens in the world, including love. Many people consider her a kind of imbecile. One day, while she is folding sheets in the garden with her mother, a wind rises up and carries both Remedios and the sheets into the sky, never to be seen again.
The laughter that rises in me as I think of Remedios drifting happily away is of a kind with what I experience at any powerful instance of revelation. But what is revealed? Even the most beautiful women do not blow away in afternoon breezes, never to be seen again. One can say this is symbolic of the elusiveness of beauty, or the inability of the world to hold what doesn’t belong to it. Perhaps along these lines we can find Garcia Marquez’s intentions – his book is a commentary on the history of Latin America, he did want to say meaningful things about reality, the ‘realism’ in his ‘magical realism.’ But, we do not feel the truth of the scene because we suddenly understand something about Latin America. Nor is it that we suddenly understand that beauty is elusive. At least, our recognition is not totally contained in these ways. There is a truth that is elusive and more difficult to describe.
The alternate way, often preferred, is realism straight up. One can write a history of Latin America, or a story in which a beautiful person ages, or vanishes. In these cases, specific points will be more explicitly made. Our response will also be more fixed. We will sit at one point and react to the author’s specific expression. A conversation may follow which covers more territory, but often we remain in stasis because the relations between our perspective and the author’s are either too similar or too different to allow real movement. The addition of the ‘magical’ to the ‘realism’ preemptively decentralizes this duality by creating an additional point of reference. We now have expression from the author which is meant to convey something truthful but cannot itself be considered a realistic representation of facts. From the outset we have gone from moving intellectually and emotionally in two dimensions to three. The revelation that brings us to laughter is the realization that reality itself contains this wonderful freedom of movement, without requiring us to sacrifice the ideal of truth, or the aim of being real. (Of course, all fiction performs this de-centering to some degree. It is a part of how fiction approaches truth, and a part of why fiction is important. The question of applying the label ‘magical realism’ is: where does the fantasy element become strong enough to label it ‘magical’, and where does the fantasy completely supplant any claims to ‘realism.’)
The Scholar of Moab, by BYU biology professor Steven Peck, has been called magical realism in the Deseret News, and other places. I’m not really concerned with whether or not it qualifies as magical realism in a strict sense. The shift in Scholar is not so great as the shift in One Hundred Years of Solitude, but the book is plenty strange enough. (Enchantingly so.) No one is going to mistake it for a true story – though there is no character nor event in the book that is completely fantastic, and all the troubles it presents are fully, recognizably human. Like One Hundred Years, Scholar is true in an elusive and, I think, important way. A way that I mean to leave to you.
The novel centers on a young Mormon man, Hyrum Thane. Hyrum is a high school drop living out his life with his wife in Moab, Utah. One day, an “overstuffed geologist” he is working under tells him he leads a “Dickensian life.” Hyrum takes this to be an insult, and begins a search for the meaning of the phrase. He discovers it reading the Complete Works of Charles Dickens. His enchantment with his discovery leads him to believe that his calling in life is to be a scholar – a work that proceeds with a sometimes subtle and sometimes oddball humor. And with a kind of poignancy. Hyrum’s world includes a known poetess who believes that she has been abducted by aliens, a town full of Mormons with a backwoods understanding of their religion, and an intellectual and sometimes cowboy Siamese twin. These come together at a central moment from which the story unwinds into an odd tragedy.
The novel has also been called a Mormon novel. While its author is a remarkable Mormon author, fully capable of being one of the people who finally fleshes out and humanizes the art culture of the church, the real interests of the book lie on a more general terrain. The story’s Mormons are caricatured, but lovingly and charmingly, and no more so than the story’s non-Mormons. As in magical realism, the unreality of some aspects of the story put us on a neutral ground in which we can relax and gently examine what is presented. This easy touch does not obscure its heavy philosophical matter: the nature of consciousness and belief, the relationship between faith and science, the tension between persona and reality, the weight of secrets, the uncomfortable relation between various kinds of love.
Possibly the most remarkable aspect of the novel is Peck’s skill in ventriloquy – the story is told primarily in the journal entries and personal letters of its characters. The choices Peck makes to cause his characters to speak seemed a little tricky early on. But the voices gather force as the novel progresses and become distinct, authentic and even powerful.
Finally, the book is full of bits that contain a personal charge, for me. My father took a job with the Bureau of Land Management in the Four Corners region, not far from Moab, in the very years the main events of the story occur. I’ve driven through Moab numerous times and have eaten lunch there more than once. Memories of time spent in that landscape are dear to me. I am familiar with small towns in the Inter-mountain West, and with the Mormon folklore that sits in the background of the story. And I lived for over a year in a house full of perfectly sane people who believe deeply that aliens intervene on this planet. In all of this, the book rings true. As Hyrum, unwittingly Hamlet, has it, “There are weird things in the world. Even for a Scientist and Scholar like me.” Laugh out loud, as we say.