The Yellow – Samantha Hunt – Magic Realism

I love when magic realism works.  Two authors whom I enjoy are Gabriel García Márquez and Haruki Murakami.  Both blend the fantastic with the mundane, Murakami especially.  It seems that for magic realism to work, the reader needs to buy into the ordinariness of the character’s universe.  The character gets up.  Goes to work.  Leads a day like most of us.  Then, something unexplainable happens.  A likely impulse when confronted by the unexplainable is to rationalize the experience or events.  A plane crashes and only one child survives.  Words like miracle are tossed around, but those words won’t do.  We need an explanation.  We need to know how.  Is it because the child was small?  Or, is it just luck?  Those are all good explanations, far more plausible than something magical.  Stories where magic realism functions well are ones in which the character approaches the situation looking for the rational, and when that’s not an option, treating the bizarre as if it were common place.  For instance, what happens when a monkey steals your name?  Obviously, the monkey must be tracked down.

In “The Yellow” by Samantha Hunt, she drives toward writing a story involving magic realism, but in this case, runs magic realism over much like the dog that has been hit in the story.  Unfortunately, the dog comes back to life and magic realism lays dead on the floor.
What doesn’t work for me is that the story isn’t based in a stable universe.  It opens with Roy, a forty something loser living at home, who on a whim paints his basement bedroom the same bright yellow his father used for marking their curb.

Yellow was everywhere. Yellow and calm. Fear and confusion left. Possibility and sunshine became his friends. In the yellow, he felt himself the newborn child of Patti Smith and Jacques Cousteau. Roy rolled a cigarette and visualized foreign, gentler lands: India, Morocco, Florida.

Eventually, late Sunday evening, his parents returned. His father, registering the new color of the walls, asked, “Son, did you turn faggot over the weekend?”

Roy offered no comeback. He held on to the color. He picked a flake of tobacco from his tongue and admired his father’s use of the verb “turn.” Turn was precisely what Roy had done after three days of ripening in silence. He’d turned. He’d fermented into something wonderful and open, something porous and bright yellow.

Within the opening scene we’ve entered the bizarre.  Roy paints his room.  The universe expands for him.  The next scene introduces Susanne, a housewife with a well-ordered life whose family is out for the evening so she can have a mini-breakdown.

Susanne’s turning, on the other hand, had been far more subtle. Perhaps she didn’t even realize she had turned, or maybe turning comes easier to women, acclimated as they are to miracles and pregnancies. Of which, by the age of thirty-nine, she’d had three.

Both characters have turned, whatever that means, and are open to something new and bizarre.  At this point, Roy kills the dog while driving.  It happens to be Susanne’s dog.  He takes the dog to her house.  She lets him inside.  They discuss the dog’s death briefly, and she’s visibly upset.  What happens in these circumstances?  Sex, of course.

My dog died for this bit of living, Susanne thought. She did not consider her husband. She brokered no possible connection between her husband and lying on the floor with a stranger.

Roy’s hands moved to unfasten, unhook, undress their bodies, conducting an urgently time-sensitive experiment. Her face was still damp from crying. In the shock of this unexpected coupling, he pinned her to the floor and she was a bird. He found his way inside and Susanne filled the room with sound, incantations that started with the routine “Oh, yes. God, yes,” and morphed into the unfamiliar “Take it. Take it all,” before winding up at the unnatural “Paint your landscape. Storm. Storm. Storm.” Not sexy, just peculiar. Pleasure remained a far-off cousin to whatever exchange they were having.

At last, his muscles and eyes trembled. A transfer was completed and the charge between them dimmed. A film of sweat developed some guilt, some old wonder. Both Roy and Susanne began to chill. He didn’t look at her. He was unsure what he’d got in the trade, though he knew that it wasn’t inconsequential. Good for him.

I should remove myself, he thought, and was about to when he felt something rough and warm, damp and thick.

Curtains, the dog, is alive!  The story goes on with Susanne demanding Roy kill the dog again.

“So,” she said, looking into the kitchen where Curtains had gone. “You’ll have to kill it. Again.”

Roy drew his eyes wide and wider. “What? It?”

“We’ve opened some sort of door here.” She knelt in front of Roy, resting her hands on his knees as if they really were lovers. “It can’t stay open. I have a good life.” She pinched the meat of Roy’s thighs. “You have to kill the dog.”

The bizarre has occurred, it’s now time to be rational.

He closed his eyes. Reasons and excuses assembled themselves. He was dealing with an unhinged person. He’d stumbled into a TV show. The dog had simply been knocked out.

As the narrative continues, we see Roy and Susanne search for a return to normalcy.  There’s no place in their lives for the inexplicable.  Susanne has the safety of her family, and for Roy, suddenly being a loser living with his parents, doesn’t seem so bad.

Besides the ironic dog’s name, “The Yellow” doesn’t work for me because there are too many fantastic circumstances.  Why does it have to be Roy and Susanne?  Why do two strangers have to have sex next to a dog’s dead body?  Why does painting the room open something in Roy?  Why does Susanne have to be on the verge of a breakdown?  Just having the dog coming back to life would be enough.  The rest of the events don’t give the story a chance to work in any sort of reality.  Perhaps, one reason is that Hunt did not want to shock readers.  All along she tells us: strange things are happening in this story.  If you want great examples of magic realism at work, turn to García Márquez and Murakami.  If you’re interested in how magic realism looks when it’s not working, read Samantha Hunt’s story.

One Response to “The Yellow – Samantha Hunt – Magic Realism”

  1. sloopie

    >Oh, I loved this story! There was that inevitable-yet-surprising progression, and the characterization was terrific. I knew exactly who Roy was when I thought he was a teenager and it turns out he's 42, that he rolls cigarettes, that his father accuses him of being a fag, but then he's very responsible to find the dog's owner. And Susanne, her fantasy of being tied naked to a parking meter, her family that goes out when she "turns", dangerous bursts of freedom, the whole concept of "turning" which has so many meanings… and she keeps assuring Roy "You'll forget" except she remembers what she forgot, which of course means she didn't forget anything, but in the end she's the one who has to forget, to feel the head like the head of any dog. And Roy is outside but he holds the shovel, so he's got the power while she has the family… oh, it's wonderful! Of course, I just read it, and tomorrow I might change my mind, but I enjoyed it tremendously.


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