by Ted Gioia

What was the first significant magical realism
novel?  Many readers will point you in the direction
of Gabriel García Márquez, whose 1967 work
One
Hundred Years of Solitude did much to legitimize the
incorporation of magic
and fantasy in literary fiction.  
Others might call attention to
Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban
novelist whose 1949 novel
The Kingdom of this World
anticipated Márquez in its
combination of myth and
Latin American history in a
fictional account that leavens
its intense social realism with
a modest dose of the phantas-
magorical.  Or perhaps they
will acknowledge
Jorge Luis
Borges or Arturo Uslar Pietri as the first magical
realist. Still others would refer to European
forebears, seeing
Franz Kafka or Italo Calvino or
Günter Grass as the true pioneers, innovators who
had perfected the recipe for magical realism before
it became associated with Hispanic authors.

Frankly, I am always amazed at these suggestions—
with imply that the artful mixture of magical and
realistic elements in a work of fiction is a modern
conceit.   Indeed, this combination is as old as
storytelling itself.  The only new twist added in
recent decades has been the use of "magical
realism" as a marketing label—favored by
publishers who don't want their authors put on the
same shelf as genre writers.  The degree to which
critics and academics play along with this
commercially-motivated distortion—a subject I will
write about at a later date—is a sad example of
groupthink, and an indicator of how readily
marketing categories have been adopted by the very
people whose job it is to scrutinize and question
their applicability.  

Let's be honest, more than
one thousand years of
magical realism
preceded One Hundred Years of
Solitude.  My choice for the first magical realism
novel dates back to the second century AD, and
came from the hand of a North African author.  
Around the year 125, Lucius Apuleius was born in
Madaurus (now M'Daourouch in present-day
Algeria), a Roman colony famous as a center of
learning. St. Augustine studied there, and later
complained about the pagan tendencies of the local
populace, as did the Roman grammarian Nonius
Marcellus.  Apuleius, however, was much more than
a product of local influences.  He was widely
traveled and well educated:  he first studied at
Carthage, before immersing himself in Platonist
philosophy in Athens, and later learned Latin
during a stay in Rome.  He adopted a colorful style
of that language for his most famous work,
The
Golden Ass
, which is the only ancient Latin novel to
have survived in a complete form.  

Apuleius was well equipped to incorporate
elements of magic into his storytelling—he was
once accused of practicing magic, and his
courtroom defense has survived.  This document,
known as
A Discourse on Magic, is more admired for
its wit than as a source of information on wizardry;
but it does give Apuleius an edge over Kafka or
Márquez and the other illustrious modernists who
could never convince anyone they were actual
sorcerers!  Apuleius also brought other valuable
first-hand experiences to bear on his writing, not
just his extensive travels and broad-based
education, but also his participation in the ancient
mystery cults.  The latter appear in the plot of
The
Golden Ass
, when the hero Lucius is initiated into
the cult of Isis.

The story opens with Lucius's journey to Hypata
(modern day Ypati) in Greece, where he stays as a
guest in the house of the miser Milo.  He is warned
against Milo's wife Pamphile, "a well known witch
and said to be a past mistress of every kind of
necromancy."  But the young man's curiosity is
stronger than his common sense, and he aims to
imitate the magic with which his hostess changes
herself into a bird.  His attempt goes awry, and
Lucius discovers that, instead of flying off as a
winged creature, he has turned himself into a
jackass.

Misfortune follows misfortune, as Lucius the ass is
beaten, chased, and eventually stolen by thieves.  
Yet in the midst of this adventure, Apuleius
changes course and incorporates a long story-
within-a-story into his novel—the most extensive
of several such interludes in
The Golden Ass.  "Once
upon a time there lived a king and queen who had
three very beautiful daughters..." begins an old
woman accomplice of the thieves—who proceeds
to relate the mythical tale of Cupid and Psyche, an
early forerunner of the story of "Beauty and the
Beast."  This account comprises almost a fifth of
the entire book, and is sometimes anthologized as a
stand-alone novella.  (Apuleius's narrative has also
inspired some provocative commentary—see for
example
Erich Neumann's Jungian study of the
myth.)

Apuleius is always pleased to have the opportunity
for a lengthy digression, and his readers come to
share his enthusiasm for such colorful asides.   Our
author is a charming raconteur, and his work
anticipates later picaresque novels by Cervantes,
Rabelais and others.  
The Golden Ass is also an
important forerunner of those famous literary
compendiums of folktales, such as the
Decameron
and
The Canterbury Tales.  The fluid transformation
of people into animals would eventually serve as
fodder for modernist works, such as Kafka's "The
Metamorphosis" (indeed, Apuleius’s novel is
sometimes referred to under the title
Metamorphoses)
and Orwell's
Animal Farm—recall that book’s
closing lines: "The creatures outside looked from
pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to
man again; but already it was impossible to say
which was which." The concept also appears in
Latin American works of magical realism such as  
Carpentier’s
The Kingdom of this World or Carlos
Fuentes's
Holy Place.

But I would be remiss if I did not point out the
connections between Apuleius’s masterwork and
genre fiction.  Indeed, if you dislike genre stories,
you are advised to keep away from
The Golden Ass,
for almost every major genre is represented here.  
You will find fantasy, romance, adventure, travel,
suspense, comedy, mystery and horror in these
pages—and sometimes jumbled together in a
manner that still seems avant-garde so many
centuries later.  But if I were forced to identify this
literary work under a single label, I would opt for
the broadest and most felicitous of them all:  it is an
example of
storytelling, plain and simple.  And the
storyteller is less concerned about the purity of
literary forms or the conventions of genre fiction,
than about pacing, plotting and—above all—
holding the interest of the audience.

His success in that regard is Apuleius’s great
achievement and his chief legacy to us.  Apuleius's
translator Robert Graves quotes Pliny's description
of a street corner storyteller, who would tell passers-
by: "Give me a copper and I’ll tell you a golden
story."  We can do no better than turn to Apuleius
for a sense of the spell those early public tellers of
tales must have cast on their audience.  Finally, if I
am right in seeing a return to storytelling as one of
the key developments—perhaps the primary one—
in the current literary environment, then Apuleius
may be more timely than ever.  Or, put another
way, the first magical realism novel remains a valid
role model today,  appealing to  us not just for its
historical interest or influence, but as a vital text
that speaks to us with a familiarity and appeal that
belies its antiquity.
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL READING
The Golden Ass
by Apuleius
Click on image to purchase
The Year
of
Magical
Reading
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works
share.  

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
by
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter
Grass

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by
Apuleius

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa
Obreht

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
by
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
by
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark
Helprin

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.
Delany

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz
Leiber

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.
Tolkien

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas
Mann

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.
Thomas

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil
Gaiman

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis
Borges

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki
Murakami

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice
Hoffman

Week 38:  Blindess by José
Saramago

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev
Grossman

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
io9
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog


Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials from
publishers, authors,  publicists or other
parties.