No Less Starstruck by Our Spells

If today the ability to read is everyone’s portion, still only a few notice what a powerful talisman has thus been put into their hands . . . and while those who have not been called seem to apply their reading ability to news reports or to the business sections of their newspapers, there are a few who remain constantly bewitched by the strange miracle of letters and words (which once, to be sure, were an enchantment and magic formula to everyone).

— Herman Hesse (1974)

Once, we could not write. Then, later, the nature of the spells we said and scratched opened up the earth and skies to us. We were awestruck in the wondrous world. Later still, we wondered at how clever we were. Here we are, now, swimming in the swathe of words upon words all saying the same things: we’re content with our words, our magickless words, and how clever we are.

Now, here, less is more. The careful selection of words is still a spell-sowing for those who know how to write and read them. The song writers and the poets know, as do the other watchers of the world. Once, we might not have understood so well (perhaps we find we’re still in a process of finding out): how could less be more? Of course, the sentiment is not so difficult, but the clean lines, the juxtapositions, the nature of what resides in the gaps might truly elude us. Mies van der Rohe drew a few graphite lines, perhaps, and which, later now, this writer still finds he’s learning: translation, from one art form to another, is a study in time. So, in words, in spells, less is more.

Yet, what of the abundance, the layers, the richness sewn deep into the fabric of all the very many books of the world? Gaps are deep within the very best and beautiful of these, within the torrid and the tremendous, within the ferocious and the frightening: some stratum of the spells, a magic seam; layers are silk thin, cotton warm, wool thick. Together, with the breath of air between, they enwrap, reflect and illuminate. Words are the delicate fabric of the human world.

Less is more. Too many words just stultify. The contentment of our modern content is a magickless morass. There was a time of awe, love, fear, respect out there in the eely black, studded with the milky sheen of stars. The fat sac of a watery moon glowered in the liquid night. We whispered soft incantations in the dark. Whichever goddesses we uttered love or reverence for, we trembled in the pauses due to them as well. Now we’ve forgotten what the words were ever for.

Our gods and goddesses are differently attired; our myths are self-aggrandisements. Magic doesn’t align with ego, and words seldom work the way they used to. What we often cannot see, or sense in other ways, is rarity. Words are rare. They can speak in tongues other than the shallow contentment of our modernity.

Once, we could not write. We have it in us to be awestruck at the wondrous world; we have it in us to be starstruck at the spells we might still lightly, deeply, sow and sew.

Hesse, H. (1974), My belief: essays on life and art. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Cited by Popova, M. (2016), The magic of the book: Hermann Hesse on why we read and always will [Online]. Available from: (Accessed July 11, 2016).

Review of Reviews 2014

As the end of the reading and writing year is upon us, I have been considering the content of my various reviews over the past twelve months. What follows is an admittedly lengthy piece but one which, I trust, can be returned to or read in sections: it is a piece that can be analysed in itself, certainly. The collection of sixteen titles reviewed in 2014 forms just a proportion of total reading content in the past year; however, the reviews that have been inspired by these books do offer the opportunity for this writer to further engage with the process of writing. To be better writers we must continue to read, to analyse, and to learn.

What follows is a review of the reviews of those sixteen titles. The salient aspects of each review have been republished in this post, re-worded for greater clarity in some cases, and roughly categorised (anonymising here, for the most part, regarding comment references to particular authors). The intention is that each comment can stand alone as a point of reflection for writers in consideration of their own work.

This review of reviews has been a process of reading, analysis and synthesis in itself. It embraces various short story collections, novels, novellas, and a form of travel-journal. Twelve authors’ works are included, namely: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Diego Marani, Javier Marías, Gabriel García Márquez, Christopher Burns, Tove Jansson, Esther Freud, Jack Kerouac, Haruki Murakami, Cees Nooteboom, Ben Okri, and Bruce Chatwin. The original reviews can be found via the left-hand side bar.

The review points to follow offer this writer some food for thought. I trust that they can do likewise for you too.
• The author tries to deliver as much hook in the first paragraphs of his stories as he can.
• There is an interesting opening idea and we settle down to the potential unwinding of this mystery.
• However, the author’s story is soon cluttered with irritating pretensions of cleverness and, half-way through, a disorientating shift in scene altogether.
• The ever-increasing reading hope that the author’s opening line will, at some point, amount to something fails to materialise.
Reader engagement
• Something may be happening. A reader must care.
• A story not entirely believable might be forgiven (a reader might go with the flow).
• The author exercises skill at immersing the reader in his places, characters’ situations, and in moments in time.
• He has the ability to sink the reader down into the fabric of the book, the place and person in the print.
• Moments of magic realism left unnurtured cause some reading dissatisfaction.
• What we are left with is something that lingers, certainly.
• Of a collection engaging with semi-autobiographical material: we can suspend our imaginations for a certain period and indulge in the idea that pure fictions are present, but at the back of the reading mind is the knowledge of something different taking shape.
• The effect of the story must strike true enough.
• Obscure literary references: some are more easily comprehensible than others.
• Also avoid the relentless and frankly irritating insistence of including foreign language as the primary source of much dialogue, followed by English translations or vice versa (as if to say, grandiosely, ‘look I speak French/am French and how superior I must be’).
• The gracelessness of the exploration is a growing agitation in the read.
• The author’s meandering, sometimes unfathomable writing style jars repeatedly.
• It is the rambling, unintelligible, non-contextual aspect of the author’s writing that is the most bafflingly frustrating.
• Having reached the half-way stage of the book, still so far so possible. However, here the author throws the reader completely. Now, at the start of the second half of the book, we find that the main character is somewhere and somewhen else. It isn’t at all clear what is going on.
• A reader doesn’t often like to be taken from one story and placed in what appears to be the middle of another without forewarning.
• The main character narrates several excruciating pages of pretentious classical-mythological analogy.
• This book is a lengthy poetic indulgence for the author, which might well have been delivered better in more succinct and shining ways.
• Whilst it remains fine to meander, some of the tellings of tales appear, to this reader, questionable in authenticity.
• The author meets and references a great many people in his exploration, with noble attempts at drawing certain individuals with brushstrokes designed at impressing them into the memory, but the net effect is that of a general swathe and flow of a traveller’s acquaintances.
• The author offers up pages of excerpts from his previous notebook travels, some of which provide succinct pause for thought, but the overall effect rather spoils the narrative drive of the whole.
Fictive suspension/flow
• Fictive suspension must be maintained.
• In a semi-autobiographical collection, writing as another gender disturbs the fictive flow: a certain degree of interest is lost because, in the context of the collection as a whole, this just does not fit; the nagging returns as to who is narrating here.
Brilliance and beauty
• Expertly describes bleaknesses and deftly describes raw power and beauty.
• Describes small slices of scenes with colour and delicate words.
• He has the succinct ability to pinpoint a description with a minute but significant object detail.
• The author does offer up moments of linguistic flourish.
• As delicate and as beautiful as an object found on a beach.
• A string of beautiful arrangements.
• In places, sprinkled with beautiful description.
• The author weaves in some beautiful imagery and sensory assemblages of market places.
• There are some small successes in playing with language.
• The author is capable of dropping in a fine and succinct line of thought.
• There are moments of quoted poetic beauty.
• Avoid jamming into a narrative apparent knowledge of the nuances of a subject matter in clumsy ways.
• The writerly device of a character narrating to the author a personal shared back-story tale (memories of place, times, objects) can feel somewhat clumsy.
• Do not set up titles for books by way of contrived conversations between characters.
• There is a proliferation of clumsy similes.
Identity of a book
• Pay attention to the potential for a crisis of identity (what is this book trying to be?)
• One story is confused in its descriptions, place, time, and reason for being.
• What is it that is the heart (not at the heart) of this book?
• The author does not seem to know what this book is: is it some discourse on metaphysical angst, an exploration of meta-fiction, detective-mystery magical allusion, or any or none of the above?
Body of work
• The practice of ‘writing on writing’ (as in building on the body of work), can be a useful device for development of the art form, but the body of work must have an integrity regarding its development (every writer’s quality of output will shift over time).
• A story might be ‘re-purposed’, by altering the title, character names and setting of a previous story.
• A story collection can form from ideas for a novel.
• ‘I had found what I needed to complete the book, what only the passing of years could give: a perspective in time’ — Márquez (the whole process took some eighteen years).
• Characters may be linked across the author’s body of work (there being a penchant for returning characters, as would seem to be the case).
• Names are used in dialogue to introduce characters, or to try to indicate who says what next. This feels somewhat amateurish.
• If we’re to immerse in the voices of characters presented to us, we need to be able to differentiate between those characters.
• Characters, Latin Americans in Europe, spring quickly from the page.
• The author has a penchant for the full name (immediately giving us some sense of a person; some feel for the possibility of a history).
• There are believable patterns of lives, though in sometimes slightly fabulous ways.
• The author seems to enjoy the ‘folding in’ of characters in his stories: a promising opening; offering us place and character and a rough idea of where those characters are heading in the piece; he folds in some extra details to give further colour to the whole, before often folding in further still by delivering some back story details to the personal histories of those characters.
• There is slight irritation in the author’s choices of flat, almost prosaic, character names: Simon, Peter, Mary, Andrew, Neville, Tony, et al (should we place our characters so blatantly in their landscapes by such choices, or can we afford to exercise more in the way of flourish and embellishment in this respect?)
• We bow down to the nature knowledge of one of the characters and suppose that it is true.
• None of the wisdom portrayed is dispatched in a holier-than-thou or preached manner.
• Can a character be seen as ‘a real child’? That is, it can be easy to slip into the trap of writing a child character in stereotypical sugary-sweet form; or, would an average child want to use words such as ‘aristocratic’ in speech?
• It is perplexing that a character referred to as existing on an island does not become in any way concrete for the majority of a book, and does not speak until three pages from the end. That he’s subtly eased off the frame of the page is a little off-putting.
• There are gradual interactions between characters.
• There is a concern though: little love can be shown to either of the main characters by the reader.
• A third character is the pivot, and the author has successfully sketched him in the neutrality that is required in order for the other characters to be as shaded as they are.
• Katri Kling, in her hardness, and Anna Aemelin, in her softness, have perfect names for their characters.
• In short story collections, surround a character by other stories that don’t make him/her jump out sharply from the whole.
• She exhibits a deep understanding of what it is to be child age.
• The author carefully and gradually draws a picture of the main character.
• Such is the author’s skill at writing from the younger child’s perspective (not in saccharine sweet stereotyped ways) that she manages to convince us of the magic of place at the same time as slowly unfolding the frustrating mother character.
• However, more psychological damage should have been caused to one of the child characters as a result of the mother character’s actions.
• Avoid extremely sketched and ridiculous stereotypes.
• The main character presents as a pretentious scholarly bore. Perhaps this is more accurately descriptive of the author himself though: the character and the author seem to share some aspects of their existence.
• The author surrounds the main character with a series of flimsily sketched other characters who mope about and stare off into the evening sky. Those characters are reminiscent, perhaps, of beginner writers’ early attempts at creating believable people: stereotypical, paper-thin, verging on archetypal.
• The author mostly eschews the naming of places and people (on one level, this works in the context of the formation of myth-making; on another level, as a novel-story, this is wholly unsatisfactory).
• Even more curious is that the author then deems it necessary to stamp a nickname onto one of the characters who washes in and out of the tale, and he names another who doesn’t stay long enough on the pages for character examination.
• This book includes a series of characters who are as airy or as liquid as the words the author lays down.
• The main characters mope through the pages of the book and nothing really happens for long, long periods.
• A flow of alternating dialogue — a collection of people and their overlapping conversations — although not difficult to follow, is clumsy in its execution.
• Dialogue here, in its relative scarcity, is unconvincingly poetically delivered: sometimes with torturous lack of reality, sometimes with torturous rhyme.
Sewing up
• Beware of writing that feels like after-thoughts, as a means of sewing up bits the author has neither the wit nor the inclination to think through as he goes.
• The author writes in a seemingly self-conscious manner at times, trying to fill in the holes he’s left, looking to smooth it all over and say to the reader how that’s all been cleared up, let’s move on.
• Avoid late and turgid long myth-tales as meandering excursions.
• The author’s long expositions build without any great pace or urgency to a point of frustration.
Twists and deviations
• Significant twists in some stories only serve to disturb the reader: the slightest of fictive cheating has taken place.
• That we gradually work out a time and place in any given story should work as a reward for our reading and connecting the puzzle pieces: when we’re shifted from that path, rudely as it were, when we’re walking comfortably along in the story’s authority, it risks unsettling us.
• Meta-fiction can be a dangerous game to play.
• When an author rides a vehicle such as ‘language’, a reader will inevitably find his thoughts turning to thoughts on language.
• The problem with the meta-fiction approach is at least two-fold: the reader becomes acutely aware of the writer’s thinking on writing, somewhat drawing the author as character into the piece, and the author needs to ensure everything he writes thereafter is faultless.
• There is consistently something lying beneath the surface in the author’s stories.
• The author’s writing appears to develop from conceptual inception, but the full depth of that thinking on the author’s part doesn’t always shine through.
• There are stories in this collection that aren’t so subtle or are laden and convoluted and which don’t reach the depths to which they might aspire. One, for example, is a messy stream of consciousness affair with no real focus; another is very slight and without great depth; another is a long and somewhat turgid exposition alluding to age.
• This is a tale that attempts to press some deeper concerns into the short- and long-term conscious process of the reader, but which falls short of this presumed target because of the shortcomings of its details.
• The story flows well enough, initially, but ultimately vagueness does not always result in depth.
• A poetic assemblage of no great solidity.
• It is a liquid flow of words which purports to meditative depths but, in reality, delivers a silted stodge to wade through.
• The idea is greater than the depth in its pages.
• There is undoubted complexity, as well as the poetic, and there is an accumulation of detail.
• Readability is let down by the author’s penchant for the occasional long and convoluted sentence.
• Consider syntax word orders of sentences and grammatical structures.
• Straighten out the incomplete sentences that tend to crop up.
• Avoid dense, impenetrable text.
• Markers are placed early on in stories and economically returned to later.
• There are recurring motifs.
• There is, however, a proliferation of partly constructed sentences throughout the book, which does have a tendency to distract the discerning eye.
• The author has presented, in short, a garbled concoction.
• ‘The end justifies the means’ is not a pretty means by any stretch.
• Stereotypical perceptions are to be avoided.
• This work is a fair percentage full of seemingly drunkard-penned ramblings in need of a good editorial savaging.
• It becomes apparent that the author either has a short attention span for maintaining motifs or anchor references in his story telling, choosing to introduce them and then just ignore them, or he has an inability to keep them in check.
• English translations may not accurately represent the nuances of the original language, but this work is peppered with incomplete sentences (the proliferation soon becomes cumbersome and annoying).
• He starts to warm to a new idea (or, if it’s been there all along, it’s been difficult to tell).
• There are clues on the opening page, but those clues are washed over in the reading because they come too soon.
• There is ambition of presenting a long mythic poetic prose tale which is not wholly achieved.
• At times the author’s writing feels like an exercise in poetic thesaurus development: he spins out his idea of the moment in tautological litanies.
• Do not replicate the author’s repetitive listed descriptions, for line upon line.
• Not for everyone: there is no definite plot, no narrative sweep of direction, no main crucible or conflict for the characters to navigate.
• The author’s story is a journey, though one without defined plot. This doesn’t matter because what we’re presented with is a tale of subtle love and frustration, abandonments, confusions, immersions and beauty.
• He spends time on his words.
• There is a predilection for certain favourite words or motifs.
• Precise, cut-glass, clear, clean prose. Hardly anything is wasted in the arrangements of words.
• For the most part, this collection is subtle, well-written, with the feel of care in construction, thought, considerations of structure and texture.
• There are some slender and beautiful juxtapositions in place.
• Juxtapositioning the prosaic and the beautiful can result in unexpected art.
• Sometimes it feels as if the author is crafting a piece, out and out, from a single kernel of an idea or from the delicate arrangement of one notion touched against another.
• There are some very deliberate structural arrangements/filmic qualities, in places.
• A book of love, a sculpting of character, enmeshing of characters.
• A book filled with clean, efficient, beautiful language.
• Despite its lack of plot or narrative direction, this book is built on love — a love of nature, for the island itself, for beauty, for characters.
• The author creates, perhaps with full intention, the overwhelming feel of something cold, winterstruck, and crisp yet troubling.
• There are layers that the author has, undoubtedly, deliberately stitched into this book.
• The ‘sketching’ process is one of the author’s signatures. She uses an economy of words which, for the most part, works well (we are left to think).
• The author’s contribution to the written form encompasses the crisp, the clean, the sharp, and the beautiful.
• One character’s long hoped-for return is a ghost that hangs in the pages throughout.
• Certainly there are ideas here that are worth creative investment of writing and reading, but the author rather spoils their shine with words for the sake of words.
Place and time
• The author’s travels have given him an eye for description of place and how that might feel for his characters.
• The author’s achievement here is to place this book in its own time, imbuing it with its own sense of memory.
• This is a book containing deliberate vast vistas and the occasionally succinct description of place.
Magic and myth
• The author deals with magic in such a way as to alchemise it into plastic.
• The author’s ideas might well be worth magic consideration, but his way of writing on them just brings the reader to the point of drifting off because of a lack of belief.
• A story needs anchoring in belief, even — or especially — if it’s the telling of the origins of myth.
• Avoid clumsy and unsatisfactory endings.
• On occasion, the author ends a story abruptly and seemingly on the cusp of an idea.
• Take care not to let a story peter out: the potential force of the tale fades.
• This collection ends with effective poignancy.

Book Review: Starbook (Ben Okri)

This review has been three months in the making. Starbook is, at once, an investment of time and an endurance through stages of reading will. At over 400 pages in length, the reader knows from the outset that this novel will take some commitment; however, what transpires is the ever-increasing reading hope that Okri’s opening line (‘This is a story my mother began to tell me when I was a child’) will, at some point, amount to something. Around a third of the way into the book, Okri writes about a ‘sculpture of pure air and sunlight’ and this is apt in describing the work in question here.

Starbook (published by Rider Books, 2008) is a poetic assemblage of no great solidity. It is a liquid flow of words which purports to meditative depths but, in reality, delivers a silted stodge to wade through. The reader reaches the point of no return somewhere along the line: that is, there is a stage in every troubling book, at different pages, where the reader will close the cover for good or carry on in bloodymindedness (either through hope or the challenge of finishing, or both). Okri may well be a fine poet, but Starbook’s ambition of presenting a long mythic poetic prose tale shines only at the achievement of the final word.

Around half-way through the book, Okri writes of another art-piece (art being a central theme):

‘It amounted to an outrage, an insult. It seemed such a wilful diversion. A distraction, an irrelevance, a conceit, a private, unnecessary indulgence in imagery and aesthetics. The work seemed without direction, without prophecy, without vision. It did not speak. It did not address the need of the times . . . it did not relate to anything that anyone could care about. It seemed beautiful and sad and well-wrought just for the sake of it. The sculpture seemed an exercise in displaying personal artistic accomplishment, a display of genius unfolding . . .’

This is ironic and perfect in describing the affect that Starbook has. Without doubt, Okri is capable of dropping in a fine and succinct line of thought (e.g. ‘The memories of a land are vast and deep’); however, a story needs anchoring in belief, even — or especially — if it’s the telling of the origins of myth, as this is.

Starbook is the rendering of once in time, in a tribal community, somewhere unnamed, of the simple tale of a prince, a maiden, and the protracted account of their coming together. For the most part Okri eschews the naming of places and people: preferring the archetypal description of ‘the prince’, ‘the maiden’, ‘the king’, and so on. Even the slave-traders who arrive and decimate the communities are referred to as the White Wind. On one level, this works in the context of the formation of myth-making; on another level, as a novel-story, this is wholly unsatisfactory. What Okri therefore produces is a series of characters who are as airy or as liquid as the words he lays down. It is even more curious that Okri then deems it necessary to stamp a nickname onto one of the characters who washes in and out of the tale (‘the Mamba’, a suitor to the hand of the maiden) and he names another (Chief Okadu, an elder, who doesn’t stay long enough on the pages for character examination but who has a hand in causing the prince’s capture by the slaver-traders).

The prince and the maiden mope through the pages of the book and nothing really happens for long, long periods. At times Okri’s writing feels like an exercise in poetic thesaurus development: he spins out his idea of the moment in tautological litanies. For example, he writes:

‘The sculpture accused, haunted, frightened, soothed, troubled, perplexed, annoyed, paralysed, trapped and engulfed them. It was like a curse, an anathema. It was stronger in the mind than in reality.’

Yet more turgid though are lines such as:

‘The king was moved by the tenderness of his people. He watched from the palace window the great crowds that had gathered from all over the known world to show their support for his family. The ragged women, the fishermen, the market women, the quarrelsome bar owners, the seamstresses, the warriors from distant lands, the one-armed, the one-legged, the crippled, the blind, the mad, the refugees from other kingdoms, the fugitives, the clowns, the fools, the celebrated heroes, the boxers, the wrestlers, jugglers, mendicants, the pregnant mothers, the albinos, the runaways . . .’ (and so on for another eleven lines).

Dialogue, in its relative scarcity, is similarly poetically delivered: sometimes with torturous lack of reality, sometimes with torturous rhyme:

‘That which is best will be lost so that that which is greatest can be found.’

‘Our art and our song.’
‘That have lasted long.’
‘Our dreams, our freedom.’
‘Better than any kingdom.’
‘Our vision.’
‘Our mission.’
‘We will protect them all.’
‘That sick maiden will not create our fall.’

Belief, especially in the telling of myth, is essential. Okri deals with magic in such a way as to alchemise it into plastic. He writes of gaps between the trees through which the prince can pass in order to reach the liminal realm of the tribe of master artists (of which the maiden belongs), or of how the prince induces the maiden’s master-artist father to become his apprentice, but then proceeds to sit in his wood-sculpting workshop, as if a sculpture himself, still and unnoticed by the maiden: Okri’s ideas might well be worth magic consideration, but his way of writing on them just brings the reader to the point of drifting off because of a lack of belief.

We cannot entertain the notion that the spirits of the workshop are, for example, imbuing the wooden sculptures with added depths of time and other intrigues if we cannot believe that the prince, in his immobile invisibility, is ‘hearing’ all the wisdom of the realm from his time amongst the cobwebs. Certainly there are ideas here that are worth creative investment of writing and reading, but Okri rather spoils their shine with words for the sake of words.

In the end, Starbook is a lengthy poetic indulgence for the writer, which might well have been delivered better in more succinct and shining ways. If the intention was to promote the idea of myth-magical story-telling, then Okri only partly succeeds: that is, the idea is greater than the depth in its pages. It is a sculpture, for sure, but one of pure air and sunlight.

One Week’s Words Washes Up on the Shore of Now

Rain falls in a vast sweep and the lightning is a sheet across the night sky. This is an enormity in the flash of the now.

Here, this now, is the calm between storms. Words tumble down and down to reach the bottom of the week: liquid amalgamations in the long thin tube, where a yard of ale might also run. Here is a puddle deepening. I think: when Phoebe offers me that smile, the one that’s lush in empathy, there’s a touch of sadness in her eyes. This is a moment of now. Night washes away.

Here we are in some stillness. Words spread out like sodden leaves. I am woken with a memory of someone I almost forgot; yes, ‘What a dream I had, pressed in organdy, clothed in crinoline of smoky burgundy; softer than the rain’*; except you were smoother still than this. Memory and dream conspire and we can often forget where we are. I am woken, deeply down in time still, coming up, coming up for air. Time washes round me.

Here is some me: once, one twenty years gone by, here he still is. He’s a ghost naïve. Words swill in pictures and sense arrangements, as ‘then’ merges with the ‘now’. Strangely in the city of my greener self, all the monuments and the toothpaste streets, his city, spread around me. There are ghosts in every crack and on every corner, where the air still circulates in endless orbits, where the light is sepia sluiced. Ghosts wash along the pavements and the roads.

Here is an always me: the children sit on the doorstep next to me. We consider the clouds. There are moments of perfection which words can’t always catch. Words try to settle on this now; yet all is too rare, as in light, yet just so. This form of rarity cycles over and around. The children know, the children feel the moment, and they have the wisdom of quietness in it all. Clouds, which have some such words somehow, wash over us.

Here is some love I have known for what could be always: be present, my dearest friend. So, I see the shifting colours of the tree in the sun to shade: white-blonde lime to dark black-green in an instant; the frosted spray of pines, perhaps; the presence, coming forwards in front of the urban world, of trees. Words fall in: I write in my mind’s eye. The now is fragile and yet remarkable. Everything is succinct. Everything is clear. The world-moment washes in.

Here is one now: this is the calm between storms. Words are present, washing over, now.
* (lyric: Paul Simon, Simon and Garfunkel)

Perspective Shifts: From Agency into the Magic of Reality

Following on from my previous writing (as linked to the recent magic realism blog hop), I find myself delving deeper into the magic of the real world. Lynne Cantwell wrote a thought-provoking piece titled Urban fantasy and magic realism: a matter of agency, and it prompts me to reply here as a post (my attempts at a direct reply were thwarted by the convergence of hardware, systems, the forces that be — all in the moment).

Despite her advocation that ‘alternative realism is a better descriptive name for the genre, mainly because it takes the ‘taint’ of magic out of play’, she goes on to write that ‘the magic in magic realism is woven into the fabric of society’ where ‘no magical creature’ need intervene. She adds that ‘the crucial difference between urban fantasy and magic realism [is that] urban fantasy requires an agent to deliberately effect the magical change’.

It’s not my intention here to quibble at length over the differences in definitional stances; I intend to look into the magic woven into the fabric of society. It’s interesting to read another writer’s perspective that some external agency might be the cause of magic, in certain written forms. That the fantasy construct is dependent on the magic inherent in an object (such as a ring), or a creature, or a person, or a creature-person, suggests that ‘grafting on’ process I wrote about recently: an almost superfluous layer, an oil-slick on what we usually see.

Lynne goes on to write that ‘one of the conceits of urban fantasy is that the fantastic is happening right under our noses — it’s just that most of us either aren’t equipped to spot it, or are more than willing to explain it away.’ Cue the creatures with the higher powers, greater knowledge, wisdom, call it what you will?

I’m not altogether comfortable with the term ‘alternative realism’. I was comfortable with a description coined as ‘alternate poetic reality’, in depicting some of what I’ve written, so why not the former? Perhaps it amounts to the thinking that in the former there’s the suggestion that what is ‘real’ (i.e. real magic in our actual reality) is somewhat devalued; in the latter, in the alternate poetic reality, it is that our own perspectives of the thing we see (reality) shift, rather than the reality itself.

We aren’t usually equipped to spot the magic. Yet we don’t need external agency to be able to affect that change in perspective: we need only internal belief. Belief is, after all, all powerful. What we believe is true. This I know. This is the power of stories, of story-tellers, of myth and magic. There’s no way to believe these words here unless what they aspire to transmit is also felt in you, the reader, by personal experience. Go into the garden, or look out over the hills or the sea, or up at the clouds: what is that you feel?

In haiku it is that very sense of ‘now’, of almost absolute comprehension, of a ‘feel’ for what ‘is’ that is the essence to be captured. What is that essence if not the magic of the world? This is not something I can, or should, try to convince you of here: I would almost be external agent and that would be counter to my point. You should go out into the world that seeps around you and feel for yourself what is there: the flavours and the ripplings, the shifts in light and the different densities in gravities, all the ways your slice of the place we all live on ‘is’, not just could be.

Here, after a shortness of rain, the ghost of a cloud shreds in distant utter silence. It’s what I see and feel, and it’s the magic of the real: not tainted by the term but enhanced by it. It’s what I believe and what I know, here, now.

Real Magic and the Mythkeepers of the World

This world we live in has a different ‘shape’ to the ‘shape’ we often think it as. By this I mean that the world is arranged in ways other than what we think we know. We block out what we don’t see because we either do not understand it, can’t countenance it, or have been swamped by a modern veneer that is an oil on our sights and skins. What we block out is magic. By this I don’t mean the Harry Potter type of ‘magic’, or the stage illusionist’s ‘magic’: I mean real magic.

For millennia humans have been storytellers. We used to embrace the mythical, the lore of the folk, the poetry of epic tales: we saw real magic in the world. The world was a wondrous and sometimes confounding and frightening place. There were phenomena beyond our comprehensions in the spaces where we lived, in the cycles of the planet, in the lights above our heads. Our ancestors could only gaze in awe at what they saw; give praise to invisible forces that filled the gaps in their understanding; accept that much of what happened around them happened in some vast ineffable space and dimension, far bigger than their collective comprehension or ability to control it all.

In the modern world we live with an inflated view of our selves as omniscient beings. We live behind our screens which shield us from sensory interactions with the planet and the stars. We do not, or will not, or cannot see the real magic of the world.

Some writers have been and are continuing to address this. What we label ourselves as isn’t so important: what is important is that there is magic in the world and awareness of it should be shared. The ‘magic (or magical) realist’ writers (depending on your persuasion) fused the fantastical elements of possible other dimensions, for example, into this world we see here (Márquez, for instance, wrote as the ghost of a long-dead child in Someone Has Been Disarranging These Roses (1952), published in his collection Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories; painters such as Mark Rothko recognised the myths and archetypes of our primal selves and incorporated this thinking into his work; religious texts make reference to inter-dimensional beings as very real in this ordinary world (the jinn of the Quran, for example).

Writing magic into one’s work isn’t simply a grafting on of fantasy elements (the reader knows this isn’t ‘real’ but will go along with the flow of fantasy in this way instead). Fantasy serves its purposes but the magic of the real is an acceptance, knowledge, that what some might see as fantastical is an ordinary part of this world. In illusion and fantasy we can suspend our disbelief to create the self-delusion; in the magic of the real we see that other ‘shape’ and way of the place we live in, and on, as true — in all its ordinary extraordinariness.

In the artistic embracement of myth and archetypes, we understand that we are a part of what Jung called the ‘collective unconscious’: we are linked entities, not merely limited-dimensional beings, behind our modern screens. From this we might see how we’re writer-mythkeepers and that we can all connect, with shamanic clarity, to the truth of the stories we’ve always told: to the ghosts and gods and goddesses, to the mesmerising hybrid creatures of the sea, to the dream visitations and other wondrous logics of spaces we breathe in. We can see objects infused with powers and energies, and we can make some sense of the way things play out because they do not play out according to the logic of what we’ve been taught. In seeing the real magic of the world we can find comfort in amongst some vast cosmic realm that’s far bigger than our imaginations can conceive.

For those of us who choose to accept the role, it is our duty as mythkeepers to uphold the lore of the folk, to keep alive the stories of the magic of the world. If we lose our connections to this magic, real magic, we lose our connections to each other, to those who’ve come before us, to where we live, and to what’s above and beyond us.

This post is part of a ‘magic realism blog hop’. Please also visit the other blogs in this specific community (see below):

What is Magic Realism? (Zoe Brooks)
Night Logic (Kirsty Fox)
Dragon’s Breath (Karen Wyld)
Magic Realism or Fantasy (Zoe Brooks)
Flying High with Magic Realism (Leigh Podgorski)
Magical Realism and a Floating Life (Tad Crawford)
Urban Fantasy and Magic Realism: a Matter of Agency (Lynne Cantwell)
Serendipity — Down the Rabbit Hole (Rebecca Davies)
Facts and Fiction: Historical Magical Realism (Evie Woolmore)
Magical Realism Blog Hop — Giveaways! (Edie Ramer)
White is for Witching (Laura at Curated Bookshelves)
Magic Realism in Movies (Christine Locke)
Every Little Thing I Read is Magic (Susan Bishop Crispell)
Everyday Magic(al Realism) (Jordan Rosenfeld)
What The Masters of Magic Realism Say (Muriellerites)
Magic Realism Blog-Hop: The Moon and Cannavaria (Children’s Fairy Tale Short) (Eilis Phillips)
Some Brief Descriptions of Magic Realism Books (Zoe Brooks)
Extract from Company of Shadows (Zoe Brooks)
The Unknown Storyteller (Karen Wyld)
Interview with Leigh Podgorski, author of Desert Chimera (Evie Woolmore)
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (Zoe Brooks)
The Bagman (by Rachael Rippon) Review (Jeridel)
Timeless Voice (Karen Wyld)

Of Ordinary Magic and Magnetic Filings

Amazing things often happen when we don’t look out for them. By ‘amazing’ I mean to focus on the tiny details of interactions and other instances of a day. Do you believe in magic? This is not the grand Fantasia magic or the wizardry of epics I’m talking about here: this is the ordinary magic of the world.

Artists gather other artists about them. They just can’t help it. There is Artist A, minding his or her own business, just taking a coffee or a beer or reading, when Artist B’s magnetic filings align. This happens too often to be co-incidence. I meet other writers, designers, poets, and singers this way. Beware, however, because trying to force such links will only repel them from you (or so I find). What happens, happens, or so we could believe. When the time is right, because of magnets, a gathering for some readings might take place . . .

Odd other instances take place which are unexpected, and which ordinarily may just seem matter-of-fact: I take three years to write thirty stories and find, somehow, that they all connect (other than the connections I’ve also engineered). This isn’t just a way of saying that themes run through; this is a way of saying that stories connect in unexpected ways. Magic has a way of being stealthy.

What of the great and unexpected occurrences though? What of the fabulous and weird and strange? Meteors land on Earth all the time, and what if one should come rolling down the hill outside my street? What if a plane should crash land, carving up the houses on either side, leaving mine unscathed? I’m on the flight path after all. One night, the moon shone in through my window, bright as day: I woke up to darkness. What happens, happens, or so we could believe.

I’ve been nominated for a writer’s award, apparently, out there in ‘meatspace’ (I do like that phrase!). It happens, though it was unexpected, like crash landings and light. What shall happen, shall happen.

I trust my words, my books, will find their magnetic filing others and — if they do, whoever they find — they will be the right people to have found them.

(Now, that writer I was talking to for several hours the other day — you know who you are — you seem to have crystallised some thoughts in me).