"To Build Is to Dwell": The Beautiful, Strange Architectures of Alice Hoffman's Novels

By Brown-Davidson, Terri | Hollins Critic, December 1996 | Go to article overview

"To Build Is to Dwell": The Beautiful, Strange Architectures of Alice Hoffman's Novels


Brown-Davidson, Terri, Hollins Critic


When I was a child and hours inched with gargantuan infinitude beyond me, past me, I can remember my near-sensual craving, the detail-mongering distilled into a ravenousness, the morning a crow flapped down into my driveway. In that immaculate environment, my mother'd set me out to play: here were no grease marks, oil spots, tire streaks, only the sunstruck expanse of white stretching beyond my hands. Suddenly, he was there, ebony as a night of imploded stars, his wings wind-ruffled, his beak sharp as a wound; he was there, eyeing me then strutting across our driveway with the cool impunity any nightmare from the subconscious, materialized, might possess. And, studying him with my child's brain, it was as if I were falling, plummeting into that welter of sleek black feathers blue-sheened, green-glowing, over the grit and dust of his pale, pale skin, into his blank gold eye cocked toward me, into the struggling mass of details which was the only existence I knew. Understood. Possessed.

Reading Alice Hoffman's novels, I'm reminded again of that crow, of how I pulled the aggregate of details composing his being so fiercely inside it was as if I'd become him, and, becoming him, understood--what? The singularity of his existence. The magic of flight, foraging, hoarding. To enter the worlds Alice Hoffman's novels render into flesh is to comprehend, again, that eeriness in familiarity, the unsettling quality of anything we think we know viewed shockingly, wonderfully, afresh.

To describe Alice Hoffman as, simply, a "magic realist" is not to do justice to the Romantic individuality of her vision, the delightful quirkiness of details celebratory of her "cult of the individual," the sentence-by-sentence rendering of details so lush, odd, mesmerizing one is tempted to read each novel with infinite and sensual slowness. For magic realism has become a schtick: just as, in the seventies, minimalism held sway, Ray Carverites everywhere proclaiming the rightness of realism realized in bone-spare and frequently pedestrian detail, so, too, in 1996, magic realism has become de rigeur, strangely fashionable when one considers its potential aesthetic difficulties, its alienating artistic elitisms (Garcia Marquez is not necessarily the most representative writer one can conjure for the masses), and the never-ending and popular appetite for straightforward narrative, which magic realism eschews. In some sense, we love magic realism because we misunderstand it: too largely and loosely it's perceived as a writer's sharp eye for the odd or some craving for the disparate within the context of "reality."

For the essence of magic realism may be not oddity but conviction; if magic realism evokes the supernatural, it's with a disbelief in the straightforwardness of things grounded in an alternate spiritual framework. It's not enough then, simply, in the context of the profoundest magic realism, to assemble supernatural details, to attempt to imbue them with the slightest underlying verisimilitude. Such uncertain experiments produce literary monsters, as if the skin and flesh of a lion had been draped over the skeleton of a dog. The conviction of magic realism insists that either the author's belief in the story or the author's ability to manipulate the details of the story remains so genuine, runs so river-bottom deep, that a lion we've never seen, one with green-gold eyes, with a spray of feathers succulent as a peacock's display ruffling out beyond its mane, might stroll into our living room with the certainty that it has been bred there, born there, always lived there. Magic realists are our twentieth-century version of fairy-tale writers: the stories they have to tell are so wonderful, compelling, and religiously important that they become the only tales these writers can tell.

In Illumination Night, this spilling-up of the magic within the ordinary builds with the thrust of narrative drive, a typical strategy of Hoffman and other magic realists: the context of the real is established early in the novel to ground the reader in preparation for a later "willing suspension of disbelief.

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"To Build Is to Dwell": The Beautiful, Strange Architectures of Alice Hoffman's Novels
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