Magic Realism, Part 4

A writer cannot achieve his purpose. The reader must. So the purpose must be well communicated, then endorsed by readers. So why put a seeming out-of-place event in a story, or even base a story around one?
on Feb 3, 2012 · No comments
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Stay on the ground where it was safe, or climb the trees and take my chances? If the beast did not lie, I could at least taste the independence of climbing a tree before losing my sight entirely.

I would take the chance.

I climbed the tree, and the tree climbed into the sky. I chased the strange creature higher and higher until I caught him on a limb at the top.

“Brave girl. Now watch.” It held me in its grasp, turning me to face out. I caught my breath—the world lay stretched below me, its colors shimmering and misty in the first light of dawn. There was no black sheet to block my view.

“You’ve seen so much ugliness in the world,” the creature said. “I wanted you to see its beauty too.”

A large white crystal floated in the air—a perfect glittering snowflake. It spun delicately in front of me, preening and showing off its points and facets. Another one joined it, and they danced for me. Soon the sky was full of dancing snowflakes, draped in diamonds.

“Never forget—the world is full of beauty. Remember the beauty, Wen Ming. No matter what happens.”

Lucky Baby, by Meredith Efken (Howard Books, 2010)

Christian information theorist Werner Gitt writes that in order to be information, a thing must consist of five components:

  1. Statistics, e.g. the book has 100 pages, there are 6,000 characters in this article, and so forth.
  2. Then there is syntax: this article is in English, and for the most part conforms to the grammar thereof.
  3. Semantics, the realm of communicated ideas and understood meaning, is the playground of fiction. We do not understand by syntax alone.
  4. Pragmatics: an action expected by the author, and implemented (or not) by the reader. We usually express this simply in terms of “keep turning pages.” But the goal of Christian fiction may be higher yet: “know that the Lord is God.”
  5. And finally, the fifth element is the writer’s purpose and the resulting reader reaction.

A writer cannot achieve his purpose. The reader must. In order for this to happen, the purpose must be communicated effectively, and then endorsed by the reader. Due to its internal contextualization, the purpose of magic realism takes root when the writer refuses to rely on surrounding culture to define the context of the fantastical—in other words, it’s a step away from the momentarily relevant, from the assumed, toward true transcendence.

As E. Stephen Burnett has often pointed out, good and evil do not subsist in Things. The writer may be evil; a book is not. A person may react in sinful or holy ways to a circumstance; but without that human context, the circumstance itself cannot receive a moral value. Sexual acts are neither right nor wrong without context; rape, homosexuality and extramarital sex are sinful, consensual marital sex is holy.

What, then, is the purpose of inserting an incongruous, decontextualized event into a story—or even basing the story around one?

Truth and validity are separate entities. A lie can be valid if it’s self-consistent; that’s when we tend to mistake it for the truth. But just because it doesn’t violate any of its own premises, doesn’t mean the premises are accurate and correct.

Wen Ming’s story is of the child who was never adopted. The child who was rejected. Her best friend is chosen, and receives a family to love her. Wen Ming is blind, desperate, with all the naive egotism of a child who has never learned to see the world from the viewpoint of others.

The incongruous event violates validity. It presents circumstance in direct contradiction of context, and in so doing, changes the context. When an unexpected event extrudes into the environment, it necessarily becomes a part of it. Coherence ceases to function reliably. New sides of truth emerge—dimensionality. The world becomes a different place.

You have seen so much ugliness in the world. I wanted you to see its beauty too.

Far from destroying rationalism, the incongruous forces an increased rationality. It demands examination of premises and insists there are other basic truths of which we have not yet partaken. This is how I became a Christian: my own irreparable sin extruded into and smashed my comfortable context. Incongruously, against everything I had been taught to hold true by atheism and agnosticism, I could see it for nothing other than what it was.

I faced the death of my world, and with it my being.

Magorium: I’m leaving.

Henry the Counting Mutant: The store?

Magorium (with a sad smile): The world.

(Henry stares, stunned.)

Magorium: You see these shoes? I found these in a tiny little shop in Tuscany, and fell in love with them so entirely, I bought enough to last my whole life.

(Henry glances from Magorium to the shoes and back again, dubious. Wistfully, Magorium tries to laugh. The two look at each other for a long moment.)

Magorium: These are my last pair.

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (2007 film)

There is an acceptable time for everything, even the seemingly foolish. The incongruous and nonsensical intrusion is a quest. The Sentience Engine has engaged; our interpretations of life have become subject to challenge. Our arrogance and desperation and darkness, the moral basis we impose on our world, is about to be revealed to us.

And so is our basis of hope. In many a great story of the incongruous, as with Henry and Magorium, there is a skeptic who cannot or will not see the fantastical.

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

— John 20:24-28

There are also gaping holes in our universe: sin scars that leave chasms in life and in the world. Bad things happen. Miracles are not the daily fare.

Or do they? Much depends upon the limits we set on what we will see and count reliable—on our willingness (or lack thereof) to acknowledge that time itself is a shifting fog, when looked upon from a clearer, higher place.

What happens when we stretch out a finger and touch the wound? We will see that it’s all too real, no matter if we call it incoherent. Whether we deem it good or evil—well, that depends on our choice of perception.

The diamond snowflakes swirled around me. “Who are you?” I asked the creature.

“I am The Thing That Happens.”

“That makes no sense.”

“It usually doesn’t. There’s never a good reason for me or an explanation. I just am. I’m not a demon, Wen Ming. It’s how you respond to me that makes me good or evil. Do you see?”

Cathi-Lyn Dyck has been a published writer and poet since 2004, and a freelance editor since 2006.

She can be found online at

C.L. Dyck is a freelance editor of award-winning Christian speculative fiction. She wrangles words on behalf of writers through Scienda Editorial.
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  1. Galadriel says:

    Statistics? Really? Who needs those? I’m sure you can come up with some good reason for it, but really….

  2. C.L. Dyck says:

    Well, exactly. 🙂 It’s a way of looking at information that really only pertains to the physical properties of the communication medium (says the nerdy girl). Although, I guess it matters for writing query letters…

  3. Gregory T. says:

    So according to Werner Gitt, there are 5 components to be information. What do you think is the most and least important of the 5? I think the 5th is the most important and the 1st one is the least. 

    Thanks for this post! It awakened my brain!


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