Too much of a good thing

Right now it’s the middle of summer, and in Ithaca, New York, it’s raining. Having lived in Austin for the last several years, the idea of frequent, day-long rainstorms in summer is not only alien, it’s a big bummer. To while away the time inside, I’ve been checking out the Spanish-language offerings on various streaming video sites. In another version of this post, I would be telling you about all the fabulous options out there. Did you know there’s an Argentinian movie streaming on HBO  where Viggo Mortensen acts in Spanish?

I guess once you’ve mastered Elvish…

Among all of these, the most heartwarming — and, for me at this moment, heartbreaking– was Tanta Aguaabout an Uruguayan family that gets rained out of their swimming vacation. That one hit me where I live: a place where it rains in the summer.

I’ve also been whiling away my rainy days attending public lectures from the Cornell School of Criticism and Theory, and a recent one by Stanford Professor Sianne Ngai got me thinking about the real theme of this post: too much of a good thing. Let’s begin not with Ngai, however, but with Gabriel García Márquez. When García Márquez passed away back in April many Pterodáctilo bloggers reflected on his body of work and their own encounters with his signature innovation, Magical Realism. Magical Realism, as Frank’s post emphasized, started out as a creative way to reflect on the extreme realities of Latin America. Like Sam and Hannah, many of us can recall our own confused and delighted first encounters with this style in Gabo’s writing and in its subsequent journeys through the literature of Latin America and the rest of the world. Yet even as Magical Realism was yielding international recognition and big financial returns, judgement about it was starting to change. Instead of being seen an authentic reaction to the way life is in Latin America and the Caribbean (something  Edwidge Danticat echoes in her New Yorker tribute to García Márquez), Magical Realism was becoming played out, over exposed. It had gone from something fresh and natural  to something that felt belabored, in short, a gimmick.

What makes a work of fiction «gimmicky»? In her lecture on «Literary Gimmicks,» Ngai says that gimmicks are features of style that cannot be ignored. Not only do they demand our attention, they also claim to know what we want and deliver it to us. Magical Realism might be said to act in this way, since it is certainly impossible to ignore the intrusion of the fantastic into the every day, and since the effect produced is obviously meant to charm and delight us. As readers, we react negatively to the gimmick for presuming to hail us in this way, even if, or perhaps especially if the gimmick actually does charm us, as Magical Realism has charmed so many Pterodáctilo bloggers. For this reason, we might think of gimmicks as offering too much of a good thing. Like the hopeless lover in a García Márquez story, gimmicky literature tries too hard to be liked, and we, like his stone-hearted beloved, are bound to feel contemptuous of that effort.

Yet there’s a dimension of Ngai’s concept of the gimmick that doesn’t immediately jibe with Magical Realism. For Ngai, it seems as if a book is either created gimmicky or not. Yet in the case of Magical Realism, the «gimmick» label only attaches years or even decades after the fact. Features that were originally understood non-pejoratively as stylistic innovations become gimmicky only in hindsight, or after several iterations. In the case of Magical Realism in particular, it seems we are put off not only by its obviousness as a style that claims to please us as individual readers, but its obviousness as a strategy that claims to please us as a reading collective, as a market. I would suggest that it is our inability to ignore Magical Realism’s claim to market popularity that influences our understanding of it as a gimmick.

And that brings me back to the beginning of this post. The protagonist in Tanta Agua wants there to be plenty of water in the swimming pool, but resents the water falling from the sky. We enjoyed Magical Realism in Cien años de soledad, but might be suspicious of a novel written in the same style today. Too much of a good thing, in either case, runs the risk of spoiling our summer fun. What do you think? When did Magical Realism become a gimmick? Or has it been one all along?

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