I visited Venice for the first time in 1994, and it was love at first sight. It reinforced my notion that our ego consciousness is surrounded by the waters of the unconscious, and I had found a city that demonstrated this perspective. Daily life goes on while the city’s structural foundations are rooted deep in the Venetian lagoon, just as our ego, our conscious perception of ourselves, floats on the collective unconscious, the inner sea that surrounds us.
Not only do automobiles not have a role in this metropolis, but boats are the major form of transportation. And what a difference that makes! The steady hum of car motors growling and horns honking and tires squealing on concrete that permeate most aspects of city life don’t happen in Venice. It’s also very different to navigate on water instead of land. Instead of dodging cars that speed dangerously on freeways crisscrossing our American cities, Venetian inhabitants move at a much more leisurely pace, night and day. There’s something comforting about the water rising and falling when we’re navigating the lagoon on boats. It creates a rocking motion, not unlike what we experienced as infants in our parents’ arms or in a cradle. How could that movement not be restorative?
But what does this have to do with how my four major female characters end up in Venice for the last two thirds of my novel Freefall: A Divine Comedy? And why does that city make a good setting for a novel?
Venice is magical, and magical realism has played a major role in all of my published novels. The term magic implies some slight of hand, an ability to make things appear and disappear at will. In a magic show, magicians exercise their ability to draw viewers’ attention away from what the magicians are doing so they can convince those watching that a rabbit really does appear at random out of an empty hat, or that any number of equally fantastic events can occur. In this case, the magic isn’t really magical in the sense of a supernatural intervention because there’s a trick at its foundation based on perception and how skillful the magician is at keeping the audience distracted enough not to notice the hoax involved.
Something similar happens with writers. They capture our attention through assembling strings of words that become a compelling narrative we follow. Just as a viewer at a magic show sets aside his/her momentary doubts about what’s happening before his/her eyes, so too do readers enter the narrative dream. That enables the writer to convince readers that the setting, characters, and events taking place are actually happening in real time when, in truth, they aren’t. They only come to life in the readers’ imagination as readers let go of their immediate world to undertake this journey into the unknown. Put this way, reading can seem like a potentially dangerous experience, and it can be if a writer’s ideas and images shatter some preconceived notion about our world and about us.
Magic also has the ability to temporarily take people out of the constraints of everyday life and make them feel they can transcend it. Instead of being locked inside the usual routines that structure our days, we find release when something magical happens, such as when we watch a play in a theatre and suddenly our world is transformed. We’re no longer our daily selves, but we begin to identify with what’s occurring on the stage and participate in all of the characters involved, good guys and bad guys.
Any writing, whether it’s a novel or a play, has a magical component to it. The primary storytelling goal is magic, achieved by mysterious means. Words themselves are transformative in that they can so easily metamorphose into other words: world contains word and old. Add or subtract a letter here or there and we’ve landed in a different meaning. Words also are slippery and magical, calling forth images just by naming things: red chair, oak table, 2006 Honda Accord, green plaid coat, eucalyptus tree. Read the text and suddenly something appears in our mind’s eye. Amazing!
This, then, seems to be the foundation for what we call magic realism. Language by its very nature is magical, transforming our everyday reality in multiple ways, carrying us aloft on the wings of thought. The writer confronts reality and tries to untangle it, to discover what is mysterious in things, in life, in human acts. The principle thing is not the creation of imaginary beings or worlds but the discovery of the mysterious relationship between our circumstances and us. The magical realist does not try to copy the surrounding reality but to seize the mystery that breathes behind things.
And that’s what I’ve attempted in Freefall. While the four major character’s lives are rooted in the “real,” however we may define that state, they also participate in the world of imagination where things can happen outside of our usual perspectives. This is why Venice was such an important setting for my novel. These women, all facing their sixtieth birthdays, needed to be shaken out of their usual routines so they could be open to new possibilities. The dreamy quality of Venice was an ideal place for such a transformation to occur.
Of course, it also hosts the Venice Biennale, and that major art extravaganza gives the major character Tillie, an artist, an opportunity to make her “mark” in the art world (and that has nothing to do with Venice’s St. Mark’s square!). But then you’ll need to read Freefall to discover for yourself the role that Venice, Italy, and Whistler, B.C., play in this book.