allonymbooks author Cadell Blackstock ponders the value of rules in magical realism.
I’m a complete sucker for beauty. Beautiful landscape, beautiful women and men, beautiful stories. I’m old enough to know better than to tell you how old I actually am, but if I tell you I was old enough to appreciate beautiful storytelling when I saw Northern Exposure when it first aired in the early 1990s, then you can figure that out for yourself.
For those of you who have never seen this gem of innovative, creative, just really funny writing that celebrates beauty in all its forms, Northern Exposure is a classic ‘fish out of water’, ‘stranger comes to town’ story. If you’ve seen Bill Forsyth’s movie Local Hero, you’ll get the idea quick enough. Joel Fleischmann, a newly qualified doctor from Queens, ends up in deeply remote and rural Alaska to pay back the costs of his education. Not only is he far outside his comfort zone, but his down-to-earth, Jewish rationality is constantly flummoxed and defied by the apparent absence of rules in this tight knit community; at least that’s how Joel sees it. Everything is crazy, no-one seems to do anything the right way, and Joel is frequently prevented from doing or getting what he wants. He can’t seem to get on anyone’s wavelength and no one seems to share his values.
Against the major driver of Joel’s attempts to survive his isolation are set a number of sub-plots, interwoven with the themes of nature, independence, native American culture, isolation and ‘being your own person’. This last is cleverly set against the strength of the community in which Joel now lives – Cicely, Alaska – for in fact everyone in town has very clear rules of their own, but these are rules which are somehow both synergistic with each other and with the environment, while also acknowledging the fundamental differences and conflicts between the perspectives of many of the characters: Maurice and Holling, Maurice and Chris, Joel and Marilyn, Joel and Maggie.
The native American elements would be an obvious source for spiritual, mystical or magical realist elements, and there is in the series a very strong undercurrent of the continuity of native American spiritual belief as a kind of rule set of its own. What intrigues me as a writer is the way this undercurrent seems to infuse everything, both ‘bending the rules’ of story telling and upholding them. I’m a huge fan of magical realism because it’s all about bending rules, it’s all about saying some stuff is possible even if it defies belief. My own hero Crash Cole is, I guess, a version of Joel Fleischmann because his rational head says ‘this is just crazy’ while he has to learn to live within the ‘crazy’ if he is to function at all. That process of compromise and attrition is kind of fascinating to me, because it’s the opposite of the process of negotiation that goes on between magical realist author and their reader. Readers of magical realism go straight into the premise open-minded and open-hearted, living within ‘crazy’ and embracing it completely from the outset. I guess they are smugly willing the hero on to ‘get it’ too.
A great example of the fusion and (con)fusion of rules Northern Exposure-style is found in the Series 2 episode, “The Big Kiss”. Chris loses his voice to a beautiful woman who is passing through town, and Ed gets help from a 256-year-old native American spirit to find out more about his parents: these are two essentially magical realist concepts. We are ‘permitted’ to accept the native American spirit guide because we can respect other belief systems, but Chris having his voice stolen goes way beyond a belief system. It breaks the rules of rationality, but in Cicely, anything is possible. Perhaps the remoteness helps – surely this wouldn’t happen in a commuter belt town or an inner city?
Yet whether you see these two story strands as similar or contrasting, they are both managed in the episode by elegant references to story-telling. Chris is told stories by two different people in which a hero who loses his voice must have it restored by intimacy with the most beautiful woman in the village. Ultimately, he tries to recreate the story for himself in order to see if it will work for him. Meanwhile Ed reconnects with the narratives of his native American culture: the spirit One-Who-Waits is always telling him stories or fragments of stories, but none of them actually meets Ed’s purpose of learning about his parents. But at the end, when Ed happens upon a man who might be his father, the man tells his own miniature story of his life since Ed’s birth.
We long for Ed to find what he is looking for: the rules of disruption and resolution demand it, and yet we almost don’t get it because the rule-bending of One-Who-Waits’ existence is actually more fun to watch, though our eyes water a little when Ed realises who Smith is. We long for Chris to get his voice back – the whole of Cicely does – but the sexual tension between him and Maggie means that Maggie almost can’t go through with the intimacy required, and follow the rules of the story into which she has been written.
It occurs to me though that magical realism might, paradoxically, give us a chance to ignore those rules altogether. Would we let that happen? Or are we relieved that the very rules that are flouted are also adhered to so carefully? That stories that start must also end. We need resolution, I suppose. We need outcome. But could the rule-bending of magical realism overcome the rules of story-telling?
Perhaps. But ultimately, it’s still 42 minute TV, folks.
Cadell Blackstock is the author of the magical realist novel Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’, available through all Amazon sites. He also wrote a blog a couple of years ago for the Blog Hop which he thinks is worth a second read …
This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. About twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (29th – 31st July 2016) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the frog button below to visit them and remember that links to the new posts will be added throughout the blog hop, so do come back to read more.
Watched every episode of that show.
Good question! The story would not feel complete without a fitting resolution, I suppose, but the magic could plausibly take it in a whole different direction. I have to rewatch that episode again now!
Characters like Crash thinking, “This is crazy,” seems to be a necessary evolution in magical realism. Awareness of the magic wasn’t there at the beginning, I don’t think. Thanks for the post and, by the way, Northern Exposure is a great show. I never specifically thought of the kissing episode as magical realism, but you’re completely right.
Thanks, Justin. Yeah – Crash is cynical about everything and part of what was fun about writing him was giving him such a starting point but juxtaposed with so much overwhelming evidence of the ‘magic’ of his situation that he couldn’t ignore it. It’s what he does with it afterwards that reverts to the realism, paradoxically – the magical becomes the normal. Happy to send you a review copy if you’re curious.
Glad you liked the post; it’s good to unearth NE fans all over the place. Thanks for your input.
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Sounds like I should see this. Is it available in the UK?
Oh, yes, Zoe, thank goodness. I think you can get it from Amazon UK – I’m sure that’s where I got mine from. Someone else commented that it was also available on Netflix, but I don’t have it so I can’t check.
Thanks for organising the blog, by the way. It’s a great health check for the genre.
What a wonderful take on MR — you’re absolutely right about Northern Exposure having those elements. Indeed, it helped loosen up TV’s formulas and enabled all the great long-arc, fantasy shows that inundate TV years now to happen. Thanks for the great post, Cadell. I’m having warm memories of my first trip to Alaska last summer, where I joyfully learned that Talkeetna was a source for NE. Great place! Even got my first glimpse of Denali on a hike there.
Thanks, Stephen. Appreciate you taking time to comment. I still want to visit Alaska, and mostly because of NE. I think NE is really under-appreciated as a step on the TV ladder; I always felt that Paul Haggis got a break on Due South, another under-appreciated series and it has its own MR elements too. Maybe I’ll write about that next year.
I’ve heard about this series for years, but have never watched it. Sounds like I need to put it in my Netflix queue. Thanks!
You really do. It’s a great watch. I enjoyed your blog, by the way; really interesting points about transition – my own character Crash is very much in that situation. And I know Evie would agree with your idea about animals trying to get our attention somehow…
I really need to rewatch this. I don’t think I absorbed the magic at all at the time, but I loved the writing and the characters. I think rules are more important in some ways when it comes to the magic in Magical Realism. There’s a constant fight against slipping from reality into fantasy (or deus ex machina). Great article and great analysis of a brilliant show!
Thanks for your comment. I had forgotten how cool and clever the show is til I rewatched it a while ago, and it is actually really MR in so many ways. Really worth a rewatch.
NORTHERN EXPOSURE and LOCAL HERO are wonderful examples. I love them both. Thank you for a beautiful post.