In a recent interview, the New Statesman asked Jonathan Lethem if he considers himself a "magical realist." Lethem's response was both pithy and hilarious: "I've always resisted the phrase, finding both terms - 'magic' and 'realist' - shaky at best, with unwelcome or unexamined assumptions camped out all around them. Some of this reaction is deeply rooted: as a child I hated the whole disingenuous kabuki of stage magicians. I identified with 'Hot Town, Summer in the City' but not 'Do You Believe In Magic?'" Although I disagree with what he goes on to say about Marquez, something about this statement resonates with me (and it's not just the image of a pint-size Lethem critically assessing birthday party entertainers and the oeuvre of the Lovin' Spoonful). "Magic" or "magical" are words that, when applied to fiction, do indeed summon up "unwelcome" associations: of pure escapism, of children's books, of deus ex machina, of "fate" or "destiny" subbing in for legitimate character motivations. The same slipshod approach to storytelling that scared me off of superhero films as a genre until recently has many intellectuals rejecting "fantastic fiction" sight unseen. A friend of mine recently mentioned a former professor who refused to rent the Lord of the Rings films because he wouldn't watch anything "that has unicorns in it." Though his students explained that unicorns were in fact not in evidence in any of the three films, he would not be dissuaded.
The Fellowship of the OMG PONIES!!!!1
Yet magic is a primordial force in storytelling, one that predates anything resembling "realism" in the collective imagination of mankind. Tales of God or gods, of talking animals, of heroes on unlikely quests, form the foundation on which our current literature rests. A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see a magic show at Proteus Gowanus art space in Brooklyn, where Acep Hale, street performer extraordinaire, integrated his flawless execution of classic tricks (no "disingenuous kabuki" here) with a lecture about the role of the shaman in historical narratives from ancient times to the present. The shaman's arc -- a descent into an underworld of some kind, a reforming of the person, and a re-emergence changed -- is one of the most basic stories we as humans tell ourselves, and it accounts at least in part for our fascination with figures from Harry Houdini to Jesus Christ. But a story doesn't need a shamanic character to take its cues from the magical. Even superficially plausible modern fiction (like the later epiphany stories of Ray Carver, the family epics of Faulkner, the degradations of Mary Gaitskill, etc.) is often structured in ways that intentionally evoke myths, religious parables, and even fairy tales.
So why is it that when magic is literalized in a story, it often gives the reader pause? The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake offered me some clues.
Sadness centers on an ordinary young girl, Rose, who at age nine, discovers she has a magical power: the ability to taste the emotions of the chef in whatever food she consumes. I haven't read Bender's last novel, but her short fiction often centers around characters whose emotional states are similarly made manifest. (For example, in her story "Marzipan," a man who loses his father wakes up with a hole in his stomach the "size of a soccer ball"; his wife gives birth to an old lady who looks and acts just like her departed mom.) These stories read as metaphors, smart and small. Yet in Sadness, Bender extends her conceit for nearly 300 pages. As the story progresses, Rose comes to prefer pre-packaged food, created in factories, which, oddly enough, she distinguishes first and foremost by their geographic locations: Louisiana, New Jersey, Kentucky. She discovers her mother's infidelity from a platter of roast beef, and ultimately finds work in a French restaurant where the food is "beautiful." But unlike, say, Dickens, Bender isn't obsessed with the sensuality of food: for a book with "cake" in the title, her descriptions of flavors, aromas, textures are cursory at best. When Rose embarks on a tour of LA area restaurants (seeking that elusive thing, a truly happy meal), what we get mostly amounts to a list. And Bender's not obsessed with cooking either, its rituals and necessities and jargon, the way it carves up time: in fact, except for the initial cake-baking scene, the most memorable evocation of food preparation is in a short description of a factory with a "no touch" system where enchiladas slide off a conveyor belt without ever encountering a human hand.
I think what interests Bender most is the psychology of the characters. But that psychology is glossed over, too. The problem here, as I see it, isn't the magic but the realism. It's clear from the way she writes Rose that Bender wants her to be a relatable character -- ordinary, likable, familiar -- living in a world very like our own. Rose loves a handsome older boy, a friend of her brother's; she worries about popularity and her parents; she learns to drive. Bender makes a point of telling us that Rose has no particular interests, nothing to set her apart; the great tragedy of her young life, along with her parents' troubled marriage, is that her brother is the family genius, tormented and beloved, while she's only average. Bender also endows her with a magical power, one that would, realistically, make anyone she described it to think she was crazy, or lying, or both. It's a power that disorders her relationship with food, that allows her to read minds, a power that was granted by an unknown force or that results from a profound, unheard-of mutation in her genes. Yet somehow, Rose does not fear she's going insane; she doesn't use her ability to manipulate those around her; she doesn't research the phenomena and find others of her kind; she does not become convinced that her superpower makes her superior to her peers, called for some peculiar mission, or inferior, cursed by an unseen Creator. She doesn't go to great lengths to keep it secret, but, until the final pages, she also doesn't press the issue with anyone who would feel compelled to react: her parents, a teacher, a psychiatrist. (At one point she mentions it to a distracted school nurse, but they speak at comical cross-purposes; her one childhood freak-out is easily resolved when she eats a bowl of chicken soup.) She does not even become anorexic or obese. Bender does not allow the magic to bear meaningfully on the realism, and so the magic stays removed from it -- abstract, fanciful, and therefore tough to swallow, if you'll pardon the pun.
Because, as I said, I'm not reviewing this book here, I won't delve into the subplots about Rose's brother's disappearances, her grandma's care packages, or her father's fear of hospitals, and I won't try to address the overall structure or prose. I'd also like to add that Bender is a highly original writer, and I'm not coming to any final conclusions about the novel just yet. But I will say that it's this kind of magic that gives me pause as a reader. I will accept anything in the world of the story: an apocalypse, dream logic, clones, time travel, a tiger loose in Manhattan, a boy who can fly, yes, even unicorns. (Thank you, Haruki Murakami.) All that I ask is that the author stay as fascinated with her own magic for long enough to explore its natural conclusions.