The Truce Between Fabulism and Realism: On Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Modern Novel

October 2, 2014 | 15 books mentioned 17 5 min read

When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died in April, the general flow of eulogy settled on two interpretations of his legacy: in the first, as a titanic but essentially regional author (The Times obituary called One Hundred Years of Solitude “the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history”); in the second, as a model for the diminishing novelties of subsequent magical realists, like Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende.

cover Fair enough. Garcia Marquez himself saw his style as fundamentally linked to the politics of his continent in his lifetime. (Correctly — for example, nothing has ever better captured how important the theft of time must feel in a totalitarian state than the dictator who lives on and on for centuries in The Autumn of the Patriarch.) It’s also true that he gave license to a new kind of fabulism, unique in that it didn’t descend from Swift or Cervantes, and therefore didn’t depend on either satire or comedy to atone for the recklessness of its inventions.

Those are narrow channels of influence, however, and there’s a third, untracked, more expansive reading of his work to make. It might go like this: he solved an essential problem of the novel; he arrived at a moment of crisis for the form and offered the warring parties a graceful way out of it; and if there’s a single novel that can claim paternity for the last 20 years of American fiction, it’s probably One Hundred Years of Solitude.

coverThat book was published in America in 1972, and it was a sensation, critically and commercially, William Kennedy famously calling it, with un-Albanyish zeal, “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” (If you somehow haven’t heard of it, One Hundred Years of Solitude is the multi-generational chronicle of a Colombian family called the Buendias.) At the time, there was a battle afoot between two kinds of fiction. Writers like Jean Stafford and Michael Shaara, traditional realists, were winning the Pulitzer Prize, while the National Book Award, inclined toward a more radical approach, went to John Barth and William Gaddis, campus experimentalists grinding out the logical final steps of the project inaugurated by Borges, by Ulysses, Hopscotch, Albert Angelo. Each side loathed the other. Updike’s declaration about Thomas Pynchon — “I don’t like the funny names” — might as well stand in for the whole cultural apparatus that was committed to realism; on the other hand Barth’s foundational postmodernist essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” called realism “used up,” and Gaddis said that such writing “never takes your breath away…it’s for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them.”

The great formal achievement of One Hundred Years of Solitude was that it treated the two positions not as antipodal but as dialectical. It satisfied the modernist commitment to narrative innovation in two ways, first in its compression and dilation of time — what would become the hallmark of magical realism — and second in its use of the fantastic, the twins who die at the same instant, the visitation of the ghosts, the glass city, Remedios being sublimated into heaven as she does the laundry.

But Garcia Marquez made the ingenious decision to embed those moments of originality within the stubbornly enduring structure of the traditional realist novel, turning his book into a family saga by way of a dream — Trollope by way of Barthelme. By doing so, he managed to defuse a central tension, one that had divided novelists since Hemingway and Joyce pitched their opposing camps. Of course, there were writers before Garcia Marquez who had blended the magical and the prosaic (Kafka, most famously) but none of them were perhaps as fully committed to narrative as Garcia Marquez seemed — to story. Meanwhile, other writers across the world had the same impulse, many of them, interestingly, in totalitarian states, including Milan Kundera and Danilo Kis, but their books were being passed around in samizdat, not, as Garcia Marquez’s was, in suburban book clubs and city libraries. What makes One Hundred Years of Solitude a watershed moment of cultural history is that mix of plot, experimentation, acclaim, and popularity.

That’s also why its influence has been so subtly pervasive. Many of our heaviest hitters — Franzen, Wallace, Eisenberg, Tartt, Saunders, Chabon — were born around 1960, and therefore came of age during the book’s ascendancy. Considered in that light, their debt to it seems plain, whether or not they would acknowledge it, whether or not they found the book stimulating, indeed whether or not they’ve even read it.

cover The reason is that all of them play the same trick, filigreeing traditional realism with enough carefully selective post-modernism to claim its gloss of coolness — but without the unfortunate consequence of making their work difficult to read. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay there’s the Golem of Prague; in The Art of Fielding there’s the self-consciously literary exhumation of the corpse; in The Corrections, there’s the magical device of Correctall, the pill that allows Chip Lambert to forget his anxiety and enter a state of dreamlike euphoria. (It’s a sign of our age how often American magical realism is pharmaceutical, after Franzen’s example — the decision-making drug in Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel; the test subjects in George Saunders’s magnificent “Escape from Spiderhead.”) Fiction is an essentially conventional art form, most at home in the bourgeoisie, but its practitioners have — quite rightly! — never been at ease with that fact. The compromise at which we’ve arrived is that every book now has the credibility of the avant-garde within a Victorian structure. It’s more fun to claim the influence of John Hawkes than John Galsworthy; it’s more fun to read a book whose plot is patterned after Jane Austen than B.S. Johnson.

cover 3.
Unsurprisingly, the first American novelist to take the full implications of Garcia Marquez on board may have been our smartest one, Philip Roth. (It’s not a coincidence that he spent the 1970s publishing Eastern European novelists, and, as Roth Unbound described, sneaking money to them via illicit networks — a fact that ought to shame the Nobel committee members who have claimed that American writers are unworthy of the prize because they’re too inward-looking, too insular.) His books The Counterlife and Operation Shylock were precursors of the great florescence of faux-mo novels in the 2000’s, using false flags and mirrored characters without their pace or urgency. The logical culmination of the trend is probably The Marriage Plot, which states the tension outright, dropping a college student who just wants to read 19th-century novels into the semiotics craze of the 1980s.

coverAt their weakest, these post-Garcia Marquez books have been kinetic without moving, emotional without evoking any real sensation, readable without deserving to be read. The novel of this type that comes to mind for me is Absurdistan by the sometimes terrific Gary Shteyngart, a disagreeable blend of absurdism and soft sentimentality. Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Colson Whitehead can feel similarly limited by their very limitlessness — their work at times too ironized for readers to treat its narrative seriously, but too committed to narrative to offer the sense of alienation, dread, and obliqueness we feel in, for example, Don DeLillo and William Gibson. The writer for whom cultural critics were so eager to give Garcia Marquez credit, Salman Rushdie, might be the least exciting of the bunch. The Pale King offers a glimpse of what David Foster Wallace’s pushback against his own trend might have looked like — his reconnection with difficulty as a means of higher artistic consciousness.

cover Recent Pulitzer Prize committees have waded into this fray again; books of high seriousness, eschewing the jokey gloss of the comic book generation, have won the prize, including three lovely but deeply conservative novels, Tinkers by Paul Harding, March by Geraldine Brooks, and Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout. How much does that matter? The painter Gerhard Richter has spent the last 50 years dissolving what previously seemed like a crucial distinction between figurative and abstract painting; is it possible that novelists, too, no longer need to declare a single allegiance? If so, the books that Garcia Marquez gave a generation permission to write, produced during the truce between fabulism and realism, may begin to look odd: artifacts of the historical moment they thought they were creating. One of the pieces of shallow wisdom people like to repeat is that every great book either creates or dissolves a genre, and sometimes it’s true. One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it hasn’t quite received credit for this, established the school of fiction we currently consider great. It’s up to some other genius to dissolve it.

is the author of the novel The Last Enchantments (St. Martin's Press, January 2014) and regularly reviews books for The New York Times Book Review, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today. He has also written about fiction for The Millions, Slate, and The Point. You can find him at @CharlesFinch.


  1. Within the first couple paragraphs I found myself mumbling “Roth.” And li and behold, there he was at the top of the second section. I think, however, you underestimate how and when he most effectively fused the two traditions.

    In both The Human Stain and American Pastoral, most of the story that Zimmerman narrates is about events he hasn’t seen or even heard about. The Swedes trips into the underground to find his daughter and her return at the end are not “real” events. They are closer to Marquez’s history of the Buendias than a so called realist novel. By putting fantasy in the center of a realist novel without remarking the boundaries he fused both influences together.

  2. Tony, absolutely right – I often think about how Zuckerman never returns to round off the narrative of American Pastoral at the end, where you would expect him to

  3. The character of Remedios was not “sublimated” into Heaven, but rather “assumed.”

    I cannot understand the discussion regarding “post- Garcia Marquez” writers. Diaz and Franzen, I think, have no intention of writing prose that would have the same effect on the reader as DiLullo and Gibson. That whole paragraph seems like you’re just spinning your wheels.

  4. Wonderful essay.

    I just want to question two things-

    Absurdistan, to my mind, is the best thing Shteyngart has written to date. “Soft sentimentality”- really? I thought it was pretty powerful and rather savage satire.

    “shallow wisdom”- that’s from Walter Benjamin. Shallow? Really?

  5. Jack Walter – I suppose what I meant was that Diaz and Franzen want an effect of post-modernism, but not THE effect of it, which is embodied by Gibson and DeLillo.

  6. C.V. – thank you so much for reading.

    I meant more – shallowly repeated, repeated without thought and with satisfaction, than that it’s shallow wisdom. You’re right.

    On Absurdistan I would disagree, though. I thought the satire was pretty clawless, the emotions pretty saccharine.

  7. Absurdistan is a terrible book, not so much “satire” as “ripped from the headlines except 6% absurder and the company names have been changed into unfunny amalgams of current companies”. CV is right, though, it probably is the best thing Shteyngart has written to date.

  8. By the way, Charles, I should also say I enjoyed the piece a great deal. I have been thinking about re-reading 100 Years for awhile. I think I reAd three or four times in six months in college, and never since. I was always worried that it wouldn’t have the impact again. I think I’ll go ahead and risk it.

  9. Ah, yes! It is that time of year again! Time to start the gnashing of the teeth, in that Philip Roth has not been awarded the Nobel Prize! (I know, this was basically a throw away line in the essay, but it is a complaint that I find rather irritating.) My response being, so what? Is he not famous and rich enough? Several of his novels have been made into movies. He’s not been laboring in obscurity so many other writers. I’m also wondering about some of the other American writers–you just don’t hear this sort of clamor for Cormac McCarthy or Joyce Carol Oates, for example. Or someone who IS more obscure, such as Stephen Dixon. American culture is already so dominant in the world, as anyone who has travelled abroad should know.

    Think about it. If you look back at the list of winners how many of them really are still read today? Many seem to have faded into obscurity. At the same time, there have been many fine writers who were deserving and not recognized, and very much still read today–Tolstoy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Kafka, Proust, Ibsen, Nabokov, Borges, Cortazar, Virginia Woolf, Calvino and on and on. If Roth wins this year, where is all that fine resentment going to go? It really is time to let this go. It sounds so petulant.

  10. To be fair, a lot of “mainstream” or “literary” fiction here in American IS insular. Too focused on navel-gazing banalities with some heavy handed talk thrown in about some timely issues plaguing the uninteresting lives of people typically too affluent and sheltered to have their finger on the pulse of matters of real concern. Not that there aren’t a number of Americans who deserve a Nobel. Writers like Ursula K Le Guin and Gene Wolfe are great writers whose massive bodies of work grapple with profound ideas and issues in ways that make them unique unto themselves and absolutely deserve being awarded as One-Of-The-World’s-Greats, but, alas, they write science fiction and fantasy–never mind their fiction is far more prescient and pushes far more boundaries than most contemporary Literature-With-A-Capital-L–so they aren’t “serious” writers. Pynchon and McCarthy are worthy too, and for Brit ex-pats, I’d say Alan Moore (is he here now?) and Neil Gaiman are also worthy…not that the Nobel committee would ever consider them. As the essay pointed out, though, many of the world’s greatest, most daring writers went unawarded–Gaddis, the most prophetic American novelist of the 20th Century, lived his life in relative obscurity even HERE, not to mention the Nobels essentially ignoring post-modernism–so I’ve learned to not expect much of anything from such “honors”.

    ….yes, Gaddis won two NBAs, but even my English professors hadn’t heard of him.

  11. Michael Travis, I agree with you that the Nobel’s ultimately pretty uncertain as a measure of greatness (and at this point so politicized), and I have no strong feeling that Americans deserve it – BUT, Roth deserves it in my opinion, and his activities in the 70’s and 80’s put the lie to the committee’s idea that American authors are too inward.

  12. CCV, what do you think of Le Clezio as a postmodernist winner? I agree that they should be open to people who do “genre” work. I know John Sutherland argued that Elmore Leonard should have won it.

  13. What on earth is faux-mo fiction? Dare I even ask?

    Good article overall. I, myself, have a penchant for Magical Realism and its current trend as manifested in writers like Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Brian Evenson, and George Saunders. It is intriguing to read about their literary forebears.

    I recently bought A Hundred Years of Solitude from the city of Faulkner. I’ve read Love in the Time of Cholera, so I already am indebted to Marquez for his influence on my own artistry, thinking, and prose. The other book awaits me on the shelves.

  14. Márquez didn’t solve anything. His popularity and influence can be attributed to marketing much more than some singularly unique literary achievement. Bulgakov was combining a relatively straightforward narrative with talking cats and witches and other magical flourishes decades before Gabo, and Vonnegut was writing highly readable yet often fantastical fiction throughout the years to which you refer here. You want to talk funny names? Try Kilgore Trout. Granted, Bulgakov may not have the same level of popularity, and Vonnegut may not have the same level of influence (at least among the highest brow halls of lit critics) but it’s not as if either are especially obscure. Certainly the Franzen/Wallace/Eisenberg/Tartt/Saunders/Chabon generation would be familiar with both of them, and I don’t think you’ve really made a convincing argument that Márquez did something so radically different we could only attribute the confluence of styles we see in this generation to their reading of his work specifically. Again, the key thing to understand about Márquez is that he has been very very well marketed (to the point where many Colombians I’ve met tire of how he stands in for their entire corpus of literature). You’re conflating how he’s been marketed with his actual achievements in the world of letters.

    And I say this having quite enjoyed a couple of books by Márquez…certainly enough that I know that the ‘a’ in his name has an accent on it.

  15. Robert, I think there’s a long and interesting story about the fantastic in literature, which goes back farther than Bulgakov! I’m sure you noticed this paragraph, which I intended to cover a lot of the variety that was going on throughout the twentieth century in that direction:

    “Meanwhile, other writers across the world had the same impulse, many of them, interestingly, in totalitarian states, including Milan Kundera and Danilo Kis, but their books were being passed around in samizdat, not, as Garcia Marquez’s was, in suburban book clubs and city libraries. What makes One Hundred Years of Solitude a watershed moment of cultural history is that mix of plot, experimentation, acclaim, and popularity.”

    What distinguishes Marquez for me (and I’m open-minded about it) is the blend of a) being determinedly literary (Vonnegut was influenced by sci-fi, for instance) and b) his popularity, which may well be partly attributable to marketing – or accessibility. Regardless, that’s why his book was a cultural watershed, and not merely a literary influence.

    Thank you for reading.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.