Licking the Salt from the Biscuit of Life - Magic Realism and The Boosh

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September 13th, 2007

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08:13 pm - Magic Realism and The Boosh
Magic realism and The Boosh
(with references to the Harry Potter series)
This all started when glynnis ([info]gloriette80) said to me:

“The Boosh is totally magic realism! I don't know why it never occurred to me before!”

“Wow!” I thought, “cool! And so true!” Closely followed by - “Ummm – but, but come to think of it, I don’t exactly know what magic realism is. So how would I know if that’s true or not?” Good point, right?

All I knew about magic realism is its name (I’m guessing it’s about things that are both magical and realistic at the same time, ten points for me) and that Isabel Allende is supposed to do it (in her spare time, perhaps).

Yeah, so perhaps I should go and find out what I’m talking about before I reply and make a complete arse of myself.

Off I went to Wikipedia and found that:

Magic realism (or magical realism) is an artistic genre in which magical elements appear in an otherwise realistic setting.

Ooh, sounds promising. And I like that there’s a term for something which isn’t straight out fantasy/science fiction (although I'm also very interested in that). So you don’t have to invent whole new worlds to play in, but tinkering with elements of the fantastical.

I’ve written in two different fandoms and two only: The Mighty Boosh and Harry Potter. I’ve always been curious about what attracted me to these two in particular, and so strongly I've never written fanfic for anything else. I keep searching for the similarities and differences between them. I thought if I looked at what magic realism is, and why The Boosh might be it and Harry Potter isn’t, it might help me understand.

So according to the Wikipedia definition, Harry Potter books would be a fantasy, because the real world exists in the books, but the reader spends most of the time in the parallel, wizarding world. On the other hand, in The Boosh, the characters are based in the normal world but just happen to keep coming across demon nannas or funky mermen and other weird magical accoutrements.

In both fantasy or magic realism there’s a sense of escapism that I really enjoy. In Harry Potter there's the feeling of stepping out of our (Muggle) world into another, more magical one. However, in the Boosh it’s slightly different. The magic keeps seeping into everyday life, as if reality itself is uncertain and somewhat dangerous (as, of course, reality tends to be).

That reminds me how in Book 5 of Harry Potter when Harry got seriously depressed and started to think Mrs Weasley was behaving as badly as his hated Muggle aunt I really hated it. I nearly gave up reading the whole series. The series had made such a feature of Harry’s escape at the start of each book from the horrible Muggle world into the comfort of the Wizarding one. I didn’t want those boundaries to be eroded.

Anyway, some other books that are supposed to use magic realism include:

· Allende, Isabel - The House of Spirits (La casa de los espíritus)
· Asturias, Miguel Ángel - Men of Maize (Hombres de maíz)
· Baross, Jan - Jose Builds a Woman
· Calvino, Italo - Invisible Cities (Le città invisibili)
· Carey, Peter - Illywhacker
· Carpentier, Alejo - The Kingdom of this World (El reino de este mundo)
· Carter, Angela - The Magic Toyshop
· Donoso, José - The Obscene Bird of the Night (El obsceno pájaro de la noche)
· Esquivel, Laura - Like Water for Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate)
· Fuentes, Carlos - The Death of Artemio Cruz (La muerte de Artemio Cruz)
· Gallardo, Sara - January (Enero)
· Kennedy, William - Ironweed
· García Márquez, Gabriel - One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad)
· Martel, Yann - Life of Pi
· Grass, Günter - The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel)
· Malaparte, Curzio - Woman Like Me (Donna Come Me)
· Morrison, Toni - Song of Solomon
· Murakami, Haruki - Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
· Okri, Ben - The Famished Road
· Rushdie, Salman - Midnight's Children
· Süskind, Patrick - Perfume (Das Parfum)
· Winterson, Jeanette - Sexing the Cherry

Okay. I’ve read about six of those, so that should have given me a bit more of an idea of what magic realism is about…

Hmmm. They tend to have a lot of flashbacks in the form of dreams, memories, imaginings and fantasies, which tend to be as important to the narrative as the current action is. I get the idea is that the authors think that’s a good way to describe the human condition, in a non-linear way, because that’s how our brains really think. If you think about it, we spend most of our lives disciplining them to behave otherwise. Also: writers just like to muck about occasionally. It’s fun. But it can be a bit tiresome to read that sort of stuff unless it’s done really well. Too much jumping about, you know? (One Hundred Years of Solitude – that book was just not for me.) On the other hand, sometimes it works brilliantly, like a rippling river pulling you into each nook and cranny along the path of the story.

What else? Wikipedia again:

There is a miscellaneous use of myths, legends, fairy-tales, the oral tradition of storytelling, folkloric customs, magic, the obscure, astrology, mythology, spirituality and, naturally, religion. Elements of the human experience of reality are often emphasised: dream, imagination, sentience, feelings and emotions, the subconscious and the spiritual. There is often a lack of definition between humour and disgust: on the one hand there is surprise, the absurd and the comical and on the other shock, the grotesque and the macabre.

Humour and disgust – that really makes me think of The Boosh. Well all of that quote does, really, but especially the last bit. The Boosh has repeated references to animal rape, stump fucking, and massive bunny bummings, among many other things. If that’s not humour and disgust with a big dollop of surprise on top, I don’t know what is.

Yeah, so far I have to agree with glynnis. The Boosh does seem to fit the bill, doesn’t it?

As for myths, legends, and fairy-tales, The Boosh tend to invent their own, and then repeat and play on them until it seems like they seem nearly real - like bubblegum Charlie, the Betamax Bandit, the Shaman Council, the planet Xooberon etc. Stories are often told as if they’re campfire tales from long ago, even though they’re obviously not, and in fact come splattered with a load of pop culture or 70s/80s nostalgia references. There’s even an episode The Priest and The Beast, which has a real ‘let me tell you a story’ moment. Howard and Vince literally sit around while Naboo tells them a long, unlikely tale about The Bongo Brothers and their search for the new sound in a multicolour desert. That storytelling is even more marked in earlier, pre-Boosh stuff, like in Julian’s ‘techno story telling sessions’ with The Pod or this article Noel wrote for The Idler in 1998.

But juxtaposing everyday life in an unexpected way with the surreal, the absurd or the dreamlike for purposes of humour – hey, it’s not that unusual, is it? In fact, pretty much every stand up comedian who dips now and again into the surreal is doing it. I’d even go further - most of my favourite comedies rely heavily on it. Monty Python. Black Books. Father Ted. Green Wing. The Young Ones. The Goodies. Little Britain. Morecambe and Wise. Spaced. Fry and Laurie. Eddie Izzard, for sure. If The Mighty Boosh is ‘magic realism’, it’s not alone, because a huge swathe of British comedy is then going to be classified in the same way.

I was talking about this to glynnis and she said:

Maybe we've hit on a difference between US vs. UK television! Over here, very few shows (that I can think of), especially comedies, venture into magic realism. If they do stray from realism, it's usually just in a dream sequence. Most of my favorite shows do involve some element of magic realism, and, not surprisingly, they're all UK shows!

Yes, ‘it was all a dream’ is a bit of a cop-out, isn’t it? The Boosh use it at the end of probably their most disturbing episode, Milky Joe, but in general they don’t need that sort of excuse to make somebody’s face look like a pie, or have Howard suddenly turn into Gandalf, or grate a character’s head, or have Brian Ferry live in the jungle with monkeys. They just do it.

Okay, so another part of the Wikipedia definition; the magic, the obscure. I think this is where The Boosh can safely be said to nudge towards ‘fantasy’. Just like in the Harry Potter books, Boosh magic really does work. There are shamans with mystical powers, there are spells, lotion and potions. There are dusts that do mysterious things, usually when you least want them to. But unlike Harry Potter, it’s not a whole world into itself. Sure, Naboo is a shaman, but when we first meet him his main job is working in a small kiosk in a zoo. On his time off he smokes and chats to his mate about digital cameras. Even the shaman’s familiar, Bollo the gorilla, has normal jobs. In the zoo, he’s - well, a gorilla. Then he becomes a DJ. Okay, so a gorilla DJ isn’t precisely normal, but what I’m saying is that the world is grounded in the everyday.

And that’s what I dearly love about The Boosh. It’s like normal life, but with the colour contrast turned way up. It elevates the mundane by its heightened reality, and that makes the reality of daily life all the more wonderful. You agree?

Time and time again, when they’re asked about the weirdness of The Boosh, Julian and Noel say in interviews that it just seems real to them. (at 5 min 20 into the interview) That it wouldn’t occur to them to do it any other way. It’s their version of reality. Which is one of the points of magic realism, I suppose – that it may seem convoluted on the surface, but actually it’s a more realistic way of describing the world than trying to do it empirically. We’ve got used to everything being neat, classified and chronological because our brains like it that way, in nice little lists.

But that’s not how life is. It is bizarre, disgusting, funny, non-linear, absurd; all those things and more. And we should celebrate that.


What do you think?
Current Mood: [mood icon] accomplished

(Indulge your wild theories here)


Date:September 17th, 2007 01:27 am (UTC)
I'm so happy you told me about this!

I was a fan of magical realism (I think we add "al" in the US because, um, longer is better, or something) when it was big in the 1980s. In particular I loved Rushdie, though I also read all of those South Americans. But then, you never know who the true inheritors or progenitors of that school really are. Do you get to count Isaac Bashevis Singer, or is that not allowed? I think he is a precursor. Then also, that nice book The Vintner's Luck ought to be magical realism, but it's probably not since some of the point is that magical realism is post-colonial, or something like that.

I always thought the weirdness had to be somehow symbolic or political to "count" as magical realism.
[User Picture]
Date:September 18th, 2007 05:18 pm (UTC)
No, I usually call it magical realism as well. I got 'magic realism' from glynnis and she's in the US.

I always thought the weirdness had to be somehow symbolic or political to "count" as magical realism.

I think a lot of the earlier books involved that sort of stuff, perhaps because it was a very big movement in South America, where political fiction was in vogue then, as you say, in the 80s. I've read a few of them. Not many. You've read more. But it's such a good idea that it seems a pity to restrict it. For example, Life of Pi (I think you've read that too)? That's not political, I don't think.

I suppose you're right, in magical realism the wierdness always does have to 'say' something. If it's just wierdness for fun or for its own sake it's more like a sprinkling of fantasy on top, a fun and fluffy extra. But most good art/literature already has layered and complex meanings built into it. If it's using magic as a theme, it's probably doing so for a good reason, and there's bound to be complex symbolic reasons for it. The fact that there's magic there implies something. You don't think about what that could be until afterwards, because it's written so logically into the story. Oh, how I love the suspension of disbelief that good writing brings!

Mmm, another thought there - what does the magic in the Boosh actually symbolise?

I think it's what I said above. The magic is treated very matter-of-factly, like it's an everyday thing. The magic symbolises all the amazing stuff in life that is aready there but we don't bother to look for. It also symbolises the dangerous, uncontrollable parts of life (there's an episode - Nannageddon - when by accident they summon a demon in the form of a a granny and she goes around killing everyone with her knitting). It's just pointing out that life is wierd by turning the contrast up slightly. Funny and dangerous by turns. That's something I completely agree with.

BTW - new icon! Sweet, huh?
Date:September 18th, 2007 05:22 pm (UTC)
Nope, I've never read Life of Pi. If you liked it, I'll get it from the library.

Ha ha! Nannageddon! that's awesome.
Date:September 18th, 2007 05:23 pm (UTC)
(Yes, the icon is very sweet!)
[User Picture]
Date:September 24th, 2007 03:06 am (UTC)
Yes, I recommend Life of Pi.

I was thinking about it, and the way you write your HP fanfic, it's either totally magical or totally AU, with no magic at all. Interesting, huh? That there's no middle ground. I think most HP fanfic is like that. I've only read a few that are mostly based in reality, and its like a little magic is seeping in now and then. They tend to be the more experimental ones, stylistically.
Date:September 25th, 2007 11:16 am (UTC)
I disagree, I don't think Potter is magic realism
[User Picture]
Date:September 26th, 2007 07:54 pm (UTC)
What do you think it is, then? Just pure fantasy?
Date:September 27th, 2007 10:56 am (UTC)
No, I just think that magic realism needs a tighter definition. Although I concur with the boosh.
[User Picture]
Date:September 27th, 2007 11:02 pm (UTC)
Ah, I see. I thought you meant that you thought the Boosh wasn't magic realism. But you just think my definition isn't tight enough. Fair enough. I never studied literature at school so I don't really know what I'm talking about.
Date:September 28th, 2007 05:30 am (UTC)
> . <

But I do love that energy in the boosh, when the magic comes in - the feeling that it's so right in the zooniverse *smiles*
Date:September 9th, 2010 02:07 am (UTC)
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