Saturday, August 06, 2005


Moral/Magical realism

Over the last couple of days I've been reading some of the novellas in Richard Wright's first book, Uncle Tom's Children. "Fire and Cloud," in particular, was gripping, in a grabs-your-lapels and won't-let-go kind of way.

If I made a list of the works of fiction that have insisted on my reading them, I would probably find that most of them can be described as dramatizations of moral decision. And Wright does this particularly well: "Fire and Cloud," for instance, revolves around a central character who is torn by choices and relationships that compete for his attention and demand his action. Put it that way, and it sounds like a shrug-your-shoulders kind of story. But trust me, you won't be able to look away.

The devices that Wright uses to narrate his character's moral crisis are not hard to figure out. Early in the story, the pastor in "Fire and Cloud" comes home to find five parties waiting for him in his church--his family, his starving congregants, a group of deacons that are divided in their loyalties to the pastor, two members of the Communist Party with whom he has been meeting, and, finally, the mayor of the town, who has come to scare the pastor into abandoning the Communists. They are all in the church at the exact same time, leaving the pastor to figure out how to keep each group from seeing the other. His divided mind is represented so literally that it almost seems too easy, too unrealistic, to dramatize the pastor's moral indecision in such a straightforward way.

But is it really that unrealistic? Perhaps this is what life really is like--moral perplexity and conflict crowds in on us, forcing us (in many cases) to do like the pastor, to usher different groups of people, each representing a different aspect of our conscientious selves, into different rooms and corners of our lives, hoping to avoid the moral confrontation that we know is unavoidable but nonetheless want to avoid. It may seem "unrealistic" for Wright to place the different sides of the pastor's life in such literal proximity, unrealistic in the same way that "magical realism" seems hard to believe. Indeed, it's almost as hard to believe that the pastor has the mayor in one room and the Communists in another room as it would be to believe Wright if he made the pastor have a conversation with a talking crucifix. And yet, just as surely as this moral confrontation seems unreal, it seems real--the real-est thing of all.

I speak here from a position of complete ignorance about most literary criticism, but it strikes me that the contradiction at the heart of "magical realism"--that it suspends the reader's disbelief at the same time that it strives for, and achieves, a breathtaking verisimilitude--is also the contradiction that makes Wright's form of "moral realism" so effective, just as it is also effective (I think) in writers like Flannery O'Connor or Dostoevsky or Graham Greene. You almost can't believe that their characters are really involved in such palpable moral dilemmas, and yet those dramatized moral decisions come so close to capturing your lived experience that you can't not believe the story. More than that, you can't put it down or stop turning the pages.

Collective Improvisation:

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