Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

The Handsomest Drowned Man in the Outback: contextualizing a structural magic realism

Phil McCluskey

Any discussion of magic realism outside of a Latin American context must inevitably begin by using the literature of the Latin American "boom" and its immediate precursors as a site of origin, drawing parallels between the two conditions in order to lend authority to the "translation" of the form. Yet even within Latin America, the term's confusing genesis has meant that critical work on the subject has often been contradictory, thus complicating issues of definition, representation, and culture. The shifting scope of critical interest from within Latin America to North America and Europe has immensely magnified the problems associated with these issues, creating a mysteriously attractive "phenomenon" that has left the concept open for assimilation into more readily definable critical groupings, reading strategies, and cultural ideologies. There is also the opposite danger that "magic realism" will come to be seen as the paradigmatic Latin American style.1

In "Irresistible romance: the foundational fictions of Latin America," Doris Sommer notes that most of the structural innovations of the "boom," characterised by the "demotion, or diffusion, of authorial control and tireless formal experimentation," were "directed towards demolishing the straight line of traditional narrative."2 And although Sommer finds the supposed literary maturity of the boom to be consistent with the First World's taste for the postmodern,3 such structural innovations, typified by the "amalgamation of realism and fantasy"4 have been hailed as authentic expressions of Latin America.5 Gerald Martin states that "a Latin American writer, regardless of his or her politics, is always pulled in two directions and thereby learns to balance different realities and different orders of experience."6

If we take as given, then, that "in Latin America all writers are from the periphery and all narratives, inevitably, bear the imprint of this origin in their structure,"7 then disentangling magic realism from other associated concepts that mark the novels of the boom requires a structural differentiation. And while in "Magic Realism as PostColonial Discourse" Stephen Slemon has supposed an "incompatibility of magic realism with the more established genre systems,"8 work has been done on the concept that allows it to be differentiated from similar concepts, most notably by Amaryll Chanady.9

The obvious advantage in a purely structural definition of the mode's operation is the ability to identify its presence in various texts. This disturbs the prominent tendency to refer to all Latin American texts of the 60s as "magic realism," and similarly calls into question claims for the appearance of the mode outside of Latin America.

At this point, then, I would offer a structural definition of magic realism, derived primarily from the work of Chanady: the magic realist text contains an unproblematic juxtaposition of the real and the supernatural. This is achieved at the level of the reader by describing nonrealistic phenomena as natural, and is usually reinforced by the untroubled acceptance of such phenomena by characters within the story.

If this narrative structure can be reproduced and relocated, the difference between the original and the replica is the sociopolitical condition within which each is enacted. Given the "stamp of cultural authority"10 that the concept of magic realism maintains within a Latin American context, it is hardly surprising that claims for its appearance outside of the continent are accompanied by declarations of marginality, "excentricity," and otherness.11 While obvious parallels can be drawn between the countries of Latin America and other postcolonial nations, instead of utilizing these parallels as a means of justifying the labelling of a work as "magic realism," what I'd like to do in this paper is examine an Australian novel which bears a structural affinity to a Latin American model of magic realism and see how this structure operates within a similar, yet importantly different, context.

The work that I want to look at is Peter Carey's Illywhacker. While some critical work has been done on Illywhacker as a postcolonial fiction,12 most critics have been content to ignore or downplay its supernatural elements. What I want to argue is that the interplay between realism and fantasy within Illywhacker illustrates a process whereby the traditional boundaries between the real and the nonreal (which are inevitably dictated by empirical centres of culture), become blurred and indistinct through the novel because of shifting foreign domination by England, the United States, and eventually, Japan.

This process takes place through three moments in the novel that involve a deviation from the shaky foundation of realism that the work primarily resides upon. The first of these moments occurs towards the end of book 1. Herbert Badgery begins the Chapter by saying:

A man who wishes his tale believed does himself no service by speaking of the supernatural; I would rather have slipped in some neatly tailored lie to fill the gap, but the gap is so odd, so uniquely shaped, that the only thing that will fill it is the event that made it. (194)

The event that makes the "gap" is the appearance of the ghost of Badgery's dead fatherinlaw, Jack McGrath. The ghost, accompanied by the ghost of a snake, is described as "not a single solid shape, but rather a confluence of lights nestling in a lighter glow, like one of those puzzles for children with dots numbered from one to ninetyfive" (194).

The ghost is a standard European supernatural trope. It is a spectre of the past which at once affirms the past and suggests its relevance within the present. The statement, "A man who wishes his tale believed does himself no service by speaking of the supernatural," indicates that at this point in the novel, the distinction between what is real and what is supernatural can be clearly made by the narrator. Introducing the "supernatural" will clearly disturb the illusion of realism that Badgery knows is integral to being believed. But the fact that the real and the nonreal can be so easily separated is evidence that "reality" at this point in the novel is fixed and predictable.

If we examine one of the roles that Jack McGrath plays in the novel, it is as one of the potential investors in Badgery's scheme to begin manufacturing an Australian airplane. The other investors, referred to by Badgery as "Imaginary Englishmen," are more interested in becoming agents for a Britishmade aircraft. When Jack has the opportunity to sway their opinion, he says nothing, later telling Herbert, " 'We're a young country. We've got to crawl before we can walk.' " To which Herbert replies " 'If you start out crawling, you end up crawling' " (141).

The ghost of Jack, then, is a spectre of the colonial selfeffacement that confirms a past of servitude to the British Empire. The ghost's relevance to the novel's present is as a reminder of colonial servitude at the birth of Badgery's son Charles, who comes to figure strongly in the ensuing economic colonization of Australia by the United States.

This shift in colonization is depicted in the novel's second moment of fabulation. It occurs at the beginning of Book 3. Marjorie Chaffey waits on her front veranda for the appearance of a mirage:

She was in her middle forties and when she squatted, she squatted comfortably, with her unusually large flat feet on the sandy floor and her thin arms folded on her knees. She could stay in that position for hours, and would do so, if the mirage would come back again.

The mirage had appeared at the bottom of the driveway. It had occupied the lonely road for four hundred yards on either side of their mailbox. There, shimmering above the hot Mallee sand, she had seen the main street of Horsham. This had occurred two years ago, two days after Boxing Day.

. . .

This, by itself, did not have the makings of a secret. If this had been all there was, she would have fetched her husband and they would have looked at it together.

But she had seen something else, and this "something else" had filled her with such joy, such a sweet mixture of happiness and loss, that she could tell no one. The "something else" was a young boy, dressed in cricket whites. She had only seen him for a moment. Another boy, the grocer's boy, had leaned his black bicycle against a wall and, when he had entered his employer's premises, the bicycle had fallen noiselessly to the footpath. The farmer had been led away by his fox-terrier. And then the boy in cricket whites passed the butcher's window, did a cartwheel, and was gone.

It was the cartwheel, the slender tanned arms, the careless joy of it, that pierced her heart, for she thought she recognizedÑalthough she knew it was impossibleÑher husband. She knew it was not her husband. She could hear him then, could hear him now, up at the forge. His nose had grown and his eyebrows had skewed like a house whose foundations are sunk in shifting shale. And yet it was her husband and she remembered what he had been like when he was a young boy, swift and pretty as a rabbit. (79-80)

Whereas the ghost of Jack McGrath is clearly recognized as supernatural and thus in opposition to the "real," the mirage witnessed by Marjorie Chaffey is less easily categorised. The mirage is recognized as a mirage, and thus occupies the space of the unreal. But the subject of the mirage is presented as (or accepted as) real, because it is historically and geographically accurate. Therefore, the shift within this second moment is away from a clear delineation of the real and the supernatural, towards a state where the real and the unreal are identifiable, but coexist within a model which inextricably entwines them.

This shift in the interplay between realism and fantasy occurs during a period which illustrates the shifting colonization of Australia from Britain to the United States. Marjorie Chaffey's husband appears in the mirage as a boy in cricket whites, symbolically recalling the colonial past. But as Marjorie watches, this mirage or historical apparition does not reappear. The carefree happiness of youth that her husband displays in a mirage of the past is countered in the novel's present by the presentation of her husband as a frustrated inventor who, like Herbert Badgery, can't get the financial backing to produce his designs.

Instead of a return to the perceived happiness of the colonial mirage, Marjorie is greeted by the sight of the arrival of the narrator's son, Charles:

But now she heard a motor cycle approach and her interest shifted towards it. It was not a mirage. It was a real motor cycle, a hard metal object that was causing a soft orange feather of dust to rise into the cobalt sky behind it. Watching the motor cycle she began to forget her boy in cricket whites and, although she had no idea who rode the motor cycle, she willed it to stop. (380)

This introduction into the text of the grown Charles Badgery on his motor cycle is the entrance of the American economic domination of Australia. At this point, Charles is a young entrepreneur who will later build the Best Pet Shop in the World, only to sell it out to American business interests. A similar example of the American domination of Australian business is revealed in the argument that Herbert and Charles later have about the Holden, billed as Australia's Own Car. Herbert knows that all the profit from the car is exported, but Charles eagerly buys into the myth of nationalism that corporate America knows will sell cars.

The third moment of fabulation occurs slightly later in Book 3, and becomes an ongoing figurative element through the rest of the novel. Badgery is in jail for ripping off the finger of his adoptive Chinese father, Goon. While in jail he is visited by the arresting officer, who has kept the finger preserved inside a vegemite bottle. Badgery describes the nature of the finger:

The finger changed. It changed all the time. It changed like a face in a dream.

I will not upset myself by describing the slimy monsters that tried to free themselves from that bottle, but rather tell you about the morning that I awoke early and found it filled with bright blue creatures that darted in and out of delicate filligree forests, like tropical fish feeding amongst coral. (415)

The Vegemite bottle goes on to play a significant role in the rest of Book 3, continually changing its appearance depending on who looks at it and under what conditions. As such, it represents the complete dissolution of the boundaries between the real and the supernatural in the novel, and is mirrored by a third shift in colonization, from American economic domination to Japanese economic and cultural exploitation.

Badgery's grandson, Hissao, with Japanese financial backing, turns the failing Best Pet Shop in the World into a human pet emporium, whose exhibits are Australian "lifesavers, inventors, manufacturers, bushmen, [and] Aboriginals. They do not act like a caged people," says Badgery (559), who himself is one of the exhibits, the "Illywhacker."

Like the curious finger in the Vegemite jar, the end of Illywhacker depicts an Australia which constantly shifts its appearance, eager to please whoever may be looking in. In doing so, it has lost the ability to differentiate between its real self and the illusory self designed to please the "gaze of tourism,"13 just as the novel's fictional boundaries between the real and the nonreal have themselves grown hazy.

This state of indistinct reality at the novel's end can shed light upon the Liar's Paradox that Badgery presents at the beginning of the novel, because they are part of the same narrative frame. On the first page of Illywhacker, Badgery states: "I am a terrible liar and have always been a liar." The lie presupposes a truth from which it must deviate, but at this point in the narration, there is no truth and lie, no real and unreal, there is only that which will keep the customer happy. And that, of course, is Herbert Badgery, like the Australia he depicts, wearing a cloak so that everyone will like him.

Structurally, then, the interplay between realism and the supernatural functions very similarly to that found in any of the Latin American works that are constantly labelled "magic realism." As Stephen Slemon has indicated, "the concept of magic realism can provide us with a way of effecting important comparative analyses between separate postcolonial cultures" (10). But it is the differences between the situations in which magic realism is employed that will prove to yield the most insightful comparisons. Whereas in a Latin American context, magic realism is often seen as the fictional manifestation of immediate reality, within the specific context of Herbert Badgery's Australia, it underlines the selfdestructive effects of a continually shifting colonization.

The University of Queensland


1 See Gayatri Spivak, "Poststructuralism, Marginality, Postcoloniality and Value" in Literary Theory Today, eds. Peter Collier and Helga Geyer-Ryan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 223.

2 Doris Sommer, "Irresistible romance: the foundational fictions of Latin America," ed. Hommi Bhabba Nation and Narration (London: Routledge, 1990), 71.

3 Sommer, 75.

4 Angel Flores, "Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction," Hispania 38.2 (1955) 189.

5 Flores, 192.

6 Gerald Martin, Journeys Through the Labyrinth: Latin American Fiction in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1989), 127.

7 Martin, 127.

8 Stephen Slemon, "Magical Realism as Post-Colonial Discourse," Canadian Literature 116 (Spring 1988): 9.

9 Amaryll Chanady, Magical Realism and the Fantastic: Resolved versus Unresolved Antimony (New York: Garland Publishing, 1985).

10 Slemon, 9.

11 A particularly disturbing example of this can be found in Geoff Hancock, "Magic or Realism: The Marvellous in Canadian Fiction," eds. Peter Hinchcliff and Ed Jewinski Magic Realism and Canadian Literature: Essays and Stories (Waterloo: University of Waterloo Press, 1986), 30-48.

12 See for example M D Fletcher, "Post-Colonial Peter Carey," SPAN 32 (April 1991): 12.

13 Tony Thwaites, "More Tramps at Home," Meanjin 46.3 (September, 1987): 408.

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