Academic journal article ARIEL

Theorizing Irony and Trauma in Magical Realism: Junot Diaz's the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Alexis Wright's the Swan Book

Academic journal article ARIEL

Theorizing Irony and Trauma in Magical Realism: Junot Diaz's the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Alexis Wright's the Swan Book

Article excerpt

Abstract: Magical realism has been commonly theorized in terms of a postcolonial strategy of cultural renewal, according to which such fiction is understood as embodying a racialized epistemology allegedly inclusive of magic. The inherent exoticism of this idea has drawn criticism. Critics have recently begun to re-envision magical realism in terms of trauma theory. However, trauma readings of magical realism tend to unselfconsciously reinvigorate an authenticating rhetoric: magical realism is represented not as the organic expression of a precolonial or hybrid consciousness, but of colonial or other kinds of trauma. Through case studies of Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Alexis Wright's The Swan Book, this essay intervenes in trauma studies readings of magical realist literature to emphasize the fundamentally ironic nature of the iconic narrative strategy of representing the ostentatiously fantastical as real. It also argues that these texts, while invested in representing the traumas of colonialism, are less interested in authenticating magic as part of a postcolonial or traumatic epistemology than in transforming fantasy into history and empowered futurity.

Keywords: magical realism, postcolonialism, trauma, Junot Diaz, Alexis Wright

I. Introduction

This essay begins from the minority theoretical position that magical realism's iconic narrative strategy of representing the fantastical as real is ironic. Magical realist texts narrate the patently untrue as though it is perfectly true--a textbook definition of irony. For example, in Gabriel Garcia Marquezs paradigmatic magical realist novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, we read how news of Jose Arcadio's murder travels to his mother Ursula:

a trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued in a straight line across the uneven footpaths, descended steps, climbed curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle in front of the Buendia house, went in under the closed door, crossed the sitting room, staying close to the walls so as not to stain the rugs, continued on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining room table, advanced along the porch with the begonias and passed without being seen under the chair of Amaranta, who was giving an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano Jose, and made its way through the pantry and appeared in the kitchen, where Ursula was preparing to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread. (232--33; my translation)

It is difficult to miss the irony in this passage. In fact, the passage fulfils the five potential cues of irony identified by Linda Hutcheon in Irony's Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony: a change of register, exaggeration or understatement, contradiction or incongruity, literalization or simplification, and repetition or echoic mention (156). A change of register occurs as the terrible trickle of blood from the deceased begins its ridiculous journey; there is clear exaggeration; the blood's supernatural motion is obviously incongruous with the natural pooling pattern of blood; the "homing" bloodline can be read as a literalization of the recursive nature of imperialist trauma (the key concern of the novel, as I will suggest shortly); and repetition is evident in the prolonged description of the blood's trajectory. The passage, in Hutcheon's terms, therefore allows the "said" to "brush up against some unsaid" (154). It brings about irony's dialectical uncertainty, or what Hutcheon describes as irony's "edge" (39).

Irony is a common characteristic of magical realist texts which, as Anne Hegerfeldt argues in Lies that Tell the Truth, "insinuate that the reader might be having his or her leg pulled" (112). This is not to say that the magical realist novel, like the "tall tale" with which Hegerfeldt compares it (112), is comic in intention. …

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