6.16.2004

Criticism: Mormon magic realism, part III

In part II, I discussed the magic realism of García Márquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," noting that the supernatural element of story -- the old man with wings -- was a baffling presence that challenged the religious conventions of the community he appears in. Neal Chandler's "The Third Nephite," which appears in his loosely-connected collection Benediction, also features a supernatural old man that poses a problem for the realistic characters and world of the narrative.

In the story a middle-aged father comes into contact with a mysterious old man who asks for his help. The father decides to give him aid and ends up in a series of situations that culminates in the two being taken by LDS security men to visit a general authority who tries to council (and threaten somewhat) the old man into following Church protocol more closely. It would seem that this old man has been driving the Church bureaucracy crazy by running around doing charitable acts that are rather unorthodox and perhaps more importantly in doing so he subverts the wishes and boundaries of local authorities. Although Chandler leaves room for some doubt on the matter, it seems pretty clear that this old man is what the title of the story suggests -- one of the Three Nephites, the three apostles who in 3 Nephi ask Christ that he allow them the same status that he gave to John the Beloved, namely, to not die, but instead be transformed into a state that would allow them to remain on earth until his Second Coming.

There is a rich body of Mormon folk narratives dealing with the Three Nephites. Chandler is clearly evoking these narratives. And by locating the story in a "realistic" seemingly historical-bound time and setting, he creates a narrative that seems to be in the magic realist mode -- especially considering how well it parallels García Márquez's story.

There are some important differences between these two baffling old men, however, and herein lies, I think, part of the challenge for Mormon magic realism that draws upon religious-folk beliefs for its magical elements.

Both old men present challenges to orthodox doctrine, but in parallels García Márquez the challenge is one of definition of being, whereas, in Chandler it is one of conduct. The Catholic authorities get caught up in an unresolved debate about the nature of this old man with wings -- and the nature of his being is not solved for the reader either. With Chandler, the being of the old man seems rather clear. Although we don't receive a 100 percent confirmation, I think most readers would agree that the old man is most definitely meant to be one of the Three Nephites. The problem is not what is he, but is he behaving appropriately?

I like Chandler's story very much, but I think that it is weak as an example of magic realism because the magic realist element is used in the service of counter-discourse -- or to put it in harsher terms -- as a teaching tool. The old man with wings represents a puzzle; the old Nephite is used to show how Church hierarchy and bureaucracy can interfere with "pure" Christian acts (in fact, this is one of the main themes of Benediction).

The problem for many (orthodox -- although I'm not sure I like the term applied to this situation) Mormon readers, I think, is that they just don't think that one of the Three Nephites (the last one even?) would come into conflict with Church leaders. What's more is that he doesn't seem entirely recognizable when removed from the folk narratives associated with the Three Nephites. I think that this is especially true because even though his charitable are mentioned, they aren't depicted. Perhaps if these had been dramatized the "magic realistic" feel of the character would have been heightened and made more believable.

And this problem illustrates a major challenge for Mormon magic realism, I think. Although Mormonism has a great foundation of folk narratives, it also has some clear doctrinal boundaries and lines of authority.

One solution for Mormon writers might be to follow García Márquez's lead and introduce elements that are baffling for Mormon readers (i.e. not accounted for by doctrine).

Another is to not worry about the category so much and focus on how to powerfully portray those Mormon experiences that are not "supernatural" but are not explainable by modern science. Those things --healings, warnings, appearances, speaking in tongues and other manifestations of spiritual gifts -- that are common and uncommon. I'm not sure how non-Mormon audiences will react to such narratives (although in part I, I assume that they will react negatively -- if at all). And considering the discomfort much of the Mormon audience has with artistic depictions of sacred moments, perhaps the audience for these narratives is so small as to almost not be worth bothering with. And yet, this is an important part of the Mormon experience -- this magic we see in the world, magic that is natural to us, unseen but true and living.

NEXT: I'm ready to move on to other subjects so it won't be for awhile, but I intend to follow-up on Andrew Hall's comments and take a look at magic realism in Margaret Young's novel Salvador. I also will try and track down an essay by Eric A. Eliason that discusses magic realism in a story collection by Phyllis Barber.