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Isabel Allende and the Decline of Magical Realism

Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

Since publishing her first book, The House of the Spirits, in 1982, the Chilean writer Isabel Allende has written ten novels, four memoirs, and three young adult novels. She writes a lot. She has written about the distant and recent past in various locales, from sixteenth-century Chile in Inés of My Soul to Vietnam-era California in The Infinite Plan to eighteenth-century Haiti in Island Beneath the Sea. And yet her new novel, Maya’s Notebook, is her first to have a contemporary setting. For such an established and successful author to step outside her bailiwick is a brave move but one that, unfortunately, does not open up exciting new territory. Instead, it yields a book so unconvincing as to raise questions about how many literary sins have been disguised by Allende’s historical settings and shielded by the vague label of magical realism.

Readers, confronted by fiction set in remote places and eras, are likely to suspend more disbelief than usual; the mingled facts and mysteries of the past make good fertilizer for fantasy. Add a dash of the supernatural and an avalanche of detail, and suddenly the whole enterprise is so heightened that soap opera plots and overwrought prose seem like purposeful stylistic choices. But when those plots and that prose are grafted onto the here and now, as in Maya’s Notebook, and subjected to the accountability of realism, they fail to provide either truth or pleasure.

The novel’s narrator, Maya, is 19-years old and recently clean after a three-year downward spiral from good kid to junky that has her “on the run from the FBI, Interpol, and a Las Vegas criminal gang.” Her grandmother, Nini, who raised her, sends her to a remote Chilean island called Chiloé, where an old family friend, Manuel, has agreed to shelter her. The book is meant to be a diary that Maya keeps over the course of a year.

Early on, Maya acknowledges that she has chosen an unusually nonlinear structure for her diary: “I lose my thread, I go off on tangents or I remember something important several pages later and there’s no way to fit it in. My memory goes in circles, spirals, or somersaults.” To be cynical about it—and I became a more cynical person over the 400 pages of Maya’s Notebook—that little aside seems like Allende providing herself with the opportunity for cliffhanger section breaks and also with an excuse for the repetitiveness and sloppiness of the novel. Recaps are offered of events that are only a few pages in the past. Small errors and unlikely instances pervade the book. “During those first months in Las Vegas,” Maya writes, “when money was plentiful, I hadn’t managed to save enough for a plane ticket back to California.” Really? Because that would take less than $100, not to mention the bus. Maya’s stepmother, a trainer of police dogs but not a cop and certainly not a Secret Service agent, is “assigned to the security detail at the White House.” There are more examples—many more.

This breezy messiness, though, is secondary to what is most unconvincing about the book: that Maya’s is the voice of a modern American teenager, let alone one who has lived rough. Here is Maya on high school sex: “Internet porn, which everyone at Berkeley High had access to, didn’t teach anything to the boys, who were grotesquely clumsy; they celebrated promiscuity as if they’d invented it—the fashionable term was ‘friends with benefits.’” The tone is supercilious and prudish (“fashionable!”)—maybe believable coming from a teenage square trying to sound above it all but not from someone who knows what it’s like to trade sex for drug money. Maya, born in California in the 1990s, says things like, “Abandoned? I wasn’t abandoned at all, I can assure you.” Or: “I have no intention of staying in this loony bin! I’m busting out first chance I get!” Only the occasional F-bomb separates Allende’s dialogue for a gritty contemporary tale from the way she voiced the characters of a nineteenth century romantic epic.1

More generally, Maya’s Notebook suffers from a moral certitude that comes out in preachy, unsubtle lines like “today’s poverty is like leprosy used to be: people find it repugnant and frightening,” or “life is easier for whites.” Stereotypical characters show up to help drive home Allende’s points: Sassy Grandma, Strong and Benevolent Black Nurse, Hypocrite Jesus-Freak Trucker Rapist. This is a novel that wishes to instruct. Allende has publicly said that as her six grandchildren “became teenagers I realized I could not protect them from the world. … I wrote this book for them and with them.” Indeed, Maya’s Notebook is a concerned grandmother’s cautionary tale with a central message: don’t do drugs.

And, oh, the drugs, the drugs. I don’t like the writing maxim “write what you know.” It’s a lame and hectoring admonishment against imagination and risk-taking. Which is to say: to write about heroin, a writer doesn’t necessarily have to use it. But Maya’s descent into the strung-out underworld of Las Vegas is neither believable nor in any way harrowing. She employs plenty of adjectives in describing her addiction but conveys little. “I sank with terrifying speed into that miserable, violent, sordid dimension,” she says, where “I was always high or trying to get high. I was dirty, smelly, and disheveled, increasingly crazed and sick.

Of the actual sensation of injecting heroin, all she offers is that “it’s impossible to describe that instant when the divine liquid enters the blood.” This seems like a cop-out, especially coming from a first-person narrator. I happened to be reading Edward St. Aubyn’s novel of heroin addiction Bad News at the same time I was reading Maya’s Notebook. St. Aubyn has the dubious advantage of having been a heroin addict, but, for sake of comparison, here is how he gets at the bliss of shooting up:

"Heroin landed purring at the base of his skull, and wrapped itself darkly around his nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favorite cushion. It was as soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon, or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm.” 

I still don’t know what heroin feels like, really, but St. Aubyn gave me something marvelously tactile, while Allende offers only lazy cliché.

I’m also not a big believer in the writing maxim “show, don’t tell.” I like a little telling—it’s efficient, and in the hands of writers like Jane Austen or Henry James, delightful, but Allende’s prose bludgeons with relentless exposition. Her telling lacks nuance or insight: “The beating Freddy got in the black neighborhood affected me very deeply,” Maya says. “Affected” is one of those words that means nothing, and what is the difference between “deeply” and “very deeply”? Maya falls in love with a visiting tourist because, “I felt comfortable with him from the start. We have similar tastes in books, movies, and music, and we laugh at the same things. Between the two of us we know more than a hundred crazy jokes.” The germination of love sounds like a voiceover from a commercial: We have common interests and enjoy jokes! When things get a little steamier, this happens: “A man’s body can supply years’ worth of entertainment. … each vertebra has a story, one can lose herself in the wide field of shoulders, well built to bear burdens and sorrows, and along the hard muscles of the arms, made to hold up the world. … The heart and the penis are my favorites: indomitable, transparent in their intentions, candid, and vulnerable.” A man’s arms are made to hold up the world? Where has Allende the self-proclaimed feminist gone?

It has to be said that the fact that Allende’s books are translated from Spanish introduces an element of critical uncertainty. In 1987, reviewing her second novel, Of Love and Shadows, John Updike wrote that “perhaps the translator should share the blame” for the primness of the prose. At this point, 17 books in, I think the time is past for blaming the translator. Take this sentence from Maya’s Notebook: “‘So the fucking slut wants to go back to California!’ he mocked threateningly.” Its bland aggression and adverbial clunkiness would be cringe-worthy in any language. And no translator could have snuck in the cheesiness of Maya’s description of her mixed-race lover’s body: “He looks like Michelangelo’s David, but his coloring is much more attractive.” Or the exposition of the obvious that takes over the dialogue as the plot devolves into a goofy caper: “‘Good thinking, Mike,’ interjected my Nini, whose eyes were starting to twinkle as well. ‘To fly, Maya would need a ticket in her name and some form of ID—that leaves a trail—but we can cross the country by car without anybody finding out.’” Allende has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years and speaks English fluently. She reads her English translations and offers notes on them. It might be time to accept that this style, with all its limitations, is her style.

A certain overstuffedness, of course, is one attribute of magical realism, an aesthetic that Gabriel García Marquez popularized and Allende embraced.2 Maya’s Notebook, as I read it, is a realist novel with a few fantastical flourishes that seem less about speaking to life’s absurdities and more about indulging in sentimentality. For example, a dog senses a woman is dead in her house and begins howling, which sets off all the other dogs, and the mass howling brings the neighbors running—to the correct house. There is also a ghost who pops up here and there and is treated with a certain earnestness, but there are no grand, obviously magical gestures. No one has the power of telekinesis or naturally green hair, as in The House of the Spirits; and no one ascends to heaven while hanging up the laundry, as in Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. A magical realist novel about contemporary Las Vegas that incorporates the fantastic, the dreamlike, and the mythical sounds like a intriguing idea, but this is not that novel.

I wonder if, in Allende’s work in general, exaggerated elements that might be read as magical realism aren’t sometimes just examples of unsubtle characterization and the kind of fuzzy wish-fulfillment that runs rampant in romantic fiction, powered by a yearning for a world full of spunky, crime-solving grandmothers and lovers who are endlessly patient, generous, and tender—and possess perfect bodies. Allende includes “emotion” on a list of forces accommodated by magical realism, but if an excess of emotion isn’t accompanied by elements of unreality, what distinguishes the work from standard-issue melodrama? As for Allende’s trademark abundance, in Maya’s Notebook, it frequently feels like unfiltered superfluity. Eighty pages from the end, for example, when maybe some of us just wanted the book to be over, Maya encounters a doctor who has no lines of dialogue and exists for half a page. Nonetheless, the action must pause so the reader can learn that “he looks much younger than he is. He’s just turned forty and has been working in the archipelago for ten years. He’s separated from his wife; they’re going through drawn-out divorce proceedings and have two children, one with Down’s syndrome.”

Harold Bloom, in the introduction to a volume of critical essays about Allende’s work, wrote, “I can locate no aesthetic achievement in the immensely popular The House of the Spirits, or in Paula, or in the recent Daughter of Fortune. … Is Isabel Allende truly comparable to Gabriel García Marquez, or are we to seek her peers at a very different level, in the cosmos of supermarket fiction?” The late Roberto Bolaño, Allende’s fellow Chilean, said her “attempts at literature range from kitsch to the pathetic.” (He also said elsewhere that literature “is the product of a strange rain of blood, sweat, semen, and tears”—the inclusion of semen on that list suggests he might not be a natural ally for Allende and her feminocentric fiction.) For her part, Allende has responded that she doesn’t care about critics. The suggestion that her books lack literary merit, she says, is insulting to her vast readership. She’s not the first aggrieved author to point to sales as proof of literary merit, which is, of course, fallacious. Popularity isn’t evidence of high-quality prose or thought, but it doesn’t rule them out, either.

Popularity on the scale of Allende’s, however, does lend some irrelevance to a review like this. I didn’t like Maya’s NotebookI have an answer to Harold Bloom’s question—but many among her loyal audience will read it and enjoy it, as is their right. The sensation of being engrossed is a wonderful one, and when I’m reading for escapist pleasure, a compelling story can compensate for lackluster prose. But in Maya’s Notebook, Allende seems to expect her readers to nod along with facile moralizing, cluck over caricatured social problems, and feel virtuous and enlightened for it. The world in this novel is stripped of the complexity and mystery that magical realism sought to aestheticize. Allende’s willingness to evolve is admirable, but I found no magic in Maya’s Notebook and precious little reality. 

  1. In Allende’s 1999 novel, Daughter of Fortune, for instance, characters say things like, “I wish to prove to you that my intentions are of the most honorable and irreproachable seriousness.” But that’s in Valparaiso, Chile in the mid-1800s, and the dialogue’s stiltedness comes off, mostly, as a romantic, old-timey, foreign inflection.

  2. She defined it in an interview as “a way of seeing in which there is space for invisible forces that move the world: dreams, legends, myths, emotion, passion, history.”