Writing in the Caribbean with a Mississippian Accent: Lewis Nordan and the Magical Grotesque

By Broncano, Manuel | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Writing in the Caribbean with a Mississippian Accent: Lewis Nordan and the Magical Grotesque


Broncano, Manuel, The Mississippi Quarterly


POST-FAULKNERIAN SOUTHERN WRITERS HAVE LONG STRIVED TO FIND THEIR own individual voices within the overpowering presence of the master whose oeuvre in a way exhausted the rich soil of Dixieland, as Cervantes did with La Mancha. Flannery O'Connor worded it in her inimitable lingo: "The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down" (45). Still, as O'Connor herself proved, the territory remains fruitful and mostly unexplored. The South, through the writer's lens, becomes a metonymy of the world itself and as such is constantly and endlessly renewed. Lewis Nordan's fiction witnesses to it.

Criticism has not failed to notice Nordan's contribution to the tradition of the grotesque, conspicuous in but not exclusive to the South. Huey Guagliardo, for instance, states that over the two past decades, "few writers have explored the varied possibilities of this technique more effectively than the Mississippi Delta's Lewis Nordan" (64). As I will argue, Nordan goes beyond that effective use of a technique and inscribes himself in one of the richest literary traditions of the American continents. The grotesque is not simply a technique but a way of understanding literature, and as such, of viewing the world. Hence, it is not circumscribed to a parade of "dwarfs, midgets, eunuchs, cripples, schizophrenics, clubfooted Latvians ..." (Guagliardo 65), sheer paraphernalia of a mode whose scope aims at the quintessence of human life. The grotesque recreates existence as an endless fair, or carnival, where joy and suffering intermingle, driven by the essential forces of desire and violence, love and death. In the American grotesque there is also a clear tendency to the magical and the mysterious that began with the first recording by the Europeans of the New World as the land of exaggerated plenty, to the extent that we may well coin the term "magical grotesque" to describe the peculiar kind of realism often produced in the Americas. My working hypothesis holds that Lewis Nordan belongs in that tradition and finds in Mississippi another dimension of the Caribbean stage, where his fiction, like much of Southern literature, truly belongs. And the shores of the Caribbean have proved to be a very fertile soil for so-called "magical realism," a literary mode deeply indebted to Faulkner's heritage, as Gabriel Garcia Marquez has repeatedly acknowledged. (2)

In a recent article, Art Taylor offers some interesting insights into Nordan's fiction, linking him with the Latin American magical realists. In this respect, Taylor breaks the ground for my analysis of Nordan's inscription in what I will define here as the magical-grotesque mode. Taylor bases his argument in Nordan's acknowledgment, in "The Making of a Book," of his indebtedness to "Latin America for making me possible" (76). In that essay, which describes the process of composition of Wolf Whistle, Nordan confesses his great astonishment at the magical texture of the reality he had portrayed in the novel. In this respect, we are to understand that the emergence of the marvelous in his narrative did not respond to a preconceived aesthetic design but rather was brought about by the narration itself, in a process that caught the writer unawares. However, albeit correct in his analysis of the deployment of magical-realist elements, Taylor seems to take for granted that magical realism is just a technique, or a formula, that the writer makes use of in certain passages of his narrative, for example to reinforce "extreme tension and outright horror" (446). Considering magical realism in this narrowing light deprives the mode of its true essence, for it is turned into just a set of conventions, ready-made for the writer to use at certain moments, for instance to "play with the contours of narrative time" (452). It is my contention that magical realism is not just this set of ready-made formulae but a true mode of understanding reality and fiction, one that does not consist only of instances of the uncanny, or the magic, in a predominantly "realistic" discourse but rather an ontological instrument for exploring the multiple layers of reality.

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