Mauk Photo1One Hundred Years of Solitude threw me overboard—and I mean off the whole institutional/intellectual ship. I’d finished a PhD in English. I was thirty, a little burnt out from reading rhetorical theory, histories of rhetoric, and stacks of academic journals. A friend of mine had been nudging (yelling at) me to read Gabriel Gárcía Márquez. For years, he nudged. “It’s important!” he said, among other things. But the title alone made me circle around it or stay dutifully focused on my academic mission, which did not include magical realism or fiction of any kind. So when I came to the novel, I did so with a little baggage. And then somewhere on the first page, I went careening away from this life.

There is nothing particular about One Hundred Years of Solitude that relates to me, that’s directly relevant to my experience, that matters whatsoever to how I make money, eat, drive to work, or walk through the world. It doesn’t resonate with my quotidian rhythms, my geography, my family life, or my professional identity. It is beyond me. And so hallelujah. Granted, it grapples with common tensions and shared questions (what might be called themes), but the power of the book, for me, involves the narrative itself—the way it dissolves expectations and reflexes inculcated by growing up in the Midwest at the end of the twentieth century.

The story doesn’t take place. Instead, it keeps unfolding and writhing. It’s a moving current. But it’s not the self-aware trickery of high modernism or postmodern storytelling. As a reader, you don’t ask, What in the heck is happening? What kind of experience am I having? Not that I’m against self-aware or genre-stretching fiction. I like plenty of it just fine, but One Hundred Years is a uniquely coherent experience. It dissolves expectations and yet carries the reader along in its unapologetically beautiful rush to oblivion.

My first read was fourteen years ago. At that point in my life, the book did something crucial, something I needed. It reminded me of what stories do. But it also dramatized the tension between wonder and knowing, between myth and modernity, between all the stuff we know and the big sea of stuff we don’t. José Arcadio Buendía, the patriarch of the family, fixates on his own wonder. He gets a crazy idea in his head and commits to it—so much that he can no longer comprehend day-to-day life. His family gives up trying to manage him and tethers him to a tree. And that’s where he stays.

Quantum physicists now say that the universe is aware. It’s watching us watch it. And the Big Bang, according to a healthy consensus, is happening right now. My point? The most fundamental stuff we think we know—the bedrock of what is—keeps getting blasted away. Modernity keeps saying, “Oops.” The world is spinning, not the sky. Wait, the sky is spinning too! Up isn’t really up. Bloodletting isn’t medicinal. There are right brains and left brains. No wait, that’s total malarky. Electrons aren’t particles but intergalatic travelers. And holy cow, as it turns out, giant squids are real! Just when we think we have some basic traction, that we know something about ourselves and the big blurry world, a new claim comes along and liquifies the ground we’re standing on. To me, that whole operation is the realm of fiction. Or that’s how I think of it. I like stories that dramatize what we do not know—and characters who are caught up in their own wonder. I write stories because they dramatize the slippery dance between certainty and ignorance, belief and misunderstanding.

Finally, I’ll say this. When Gabriel Gárcía Márquez died last spring—when he floated off in the wake of Remedios the Beauty—I remember thinking, what now? What does a writer do in a post-Marquezian world? I don’t yet have an answer.