According to Wikipedia, Professor Matthew Strecher defines magic realism as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.” The article goes on to say that “magical realist texts create a reality ‘in which the relation between incidents, characters, and setting could not be based upon or justified by their status within the physical world or their normal acceptance by bourgeois mentality.’” Who wants to think of themselves as having a bourgeois mentality, accepting things as “normal” and thereby obstructing magical realism? Not me. This issue of A Cappella Zoo—entitled “Bestiary” because, I assume, it’s the best of the first demi-decade of this labor-of-love journal of magical realism of all kinds—completely dismantles whatever bourgeois mentality I, or you, may be harboring. It will charm you, in every sense of the word.
Each story or poem hints at some surprising relationship to both mainstream literature and fantasy, some haunting intersection that will leave the reader musing, laughing a little, vexed and vindicated in that secret place where we know the world is much, much more than it seems and that rightly-chosen words capture and create that fact in ways mere bourgeois thinking cannot.
“When the World Ends” by Nicole Miyashiro, for example, has the flavor of a story you’ve heard once before, somewhere, but forgot quickly because it had too many frightening implications for you. Jace, the narrator, is commissioned by some mysterious entities to take pictures, but the purpose of the pictures is withheld. Gradually he realizes that things are disappearing randomly; the pictures are to capture them before it’s too late. He has a poignant relationship with a woman he rarely sees, who thinks of him at apparently the same odd moment he thinks of her so that their infrequent emails cross. His conviction that the pictures he’s taking coincide with the disappearance of important things (plants, people, places) suddenly becomes a conviction that he is about to lose all that’s dear to him, and he races desperately to take pictures of all of it, including this far-flung friend. The voice is rational and likeable, the setting detailed and realistic. When we realize with Jace that what’s happening is too strange to believe, we become frantic. The story stays with us, won’t let us go.
But that’s true of all thirty-six stories, all twenty-nine poems. “Dearest Dirty,” a sort of children’s tale written by Tina Hyland and illustrated in calligraphic black and white drawings by Gavin Faherty, is Griffin and Sabine for a polluted, maybe post-apocalyptic world, with a melancholy conclusion. Many of the stories are about the world ending. I suppose we can’t write magical realism if we think the mundane rhythms of the world continue ad nauseam to the far horizons. At least these writers can’t. Gina Ochsner, author of The Necessary Grace to Fall, is the guest editor of this issue, and in her introductory interview with ACZ’s founding editor, Colin Meldrum, she lauds the “frolicsome, mischievous nature” of the works published here, their “clear cogent vision and articulation,” how “fun” they are, “how vivid and marvelously constructed.”
Amber Sparks’s “When the Weather Changes You” starts, “The year the earth froze hard as diamonds and the sky rained ash, my great-grandparents met and married. . . . The details surrounding that fact are . . . more like smoke than story. More like mirrors than memory.” What follows is, in similar voice, those details—and they are strange indeed, but they could be true, literally or figuratively—a girl who wants only to be alone, a fat man who offers body heat to stave off the coldest winter in the world’s remembrance, and a difficult marriage with one offspring, the grandfather of the narrator. Stories need not be made up to be magical realism. The fact is, reality is magical, if it’s told that way.
Here’s another set of opening lines: “The trick is to clearly mark all the vits and don’t pop too close or too far away. And small caliber, of course. But it’s gotta pierce” (Robert Edward Sullivan’s “Popper’s Choice”). This one sounds a little like Riddley Walker, or Clockwork Orange, with a vocabulary not of our world and a leaning toward self-destruction simply because staying alive isn’t worth it any more.
“Wife number one has the strength of a grizzly and skin as solid as sandpaper . . . Wife number two has great powers of hearing and eyesight, capable of finding me even in my most unusual hiding places . . . Wife number three is a sex machine” (John Jasper Owens’s “Postcards From Home”). What a great opener! Three wives at once—where will this story go?
The variety of forms (prose poems, flash fiction, short story, longer story, formal poems, free verse) and subject matter (the afterlife, the end of life, the beginning of life, the time between lives, rewrites of old folk tales, brand-new myths, sex, sex changes, child sex, sexlessness) leaves you gasping. Support this litmag by reading, donating, submitting—this is good work. It moves the cosmos beyond itself. Kudos, and all good wishes for the demi-decades to come!