Then I read Steinbeck's thickest novel, East of Eden, and again encountered a tale in which people neither sinful nor virtuous did their stuff. Adam Trask struggled to raise his sons, the likable Aron and the complex, misunderstood Cal. Yet the Trasks and their neighbors lived in a world where evil lurked. In fact, a "monster" walked among them, and she shared my name, Cathy. She had a pointed tongue, little hoofs, an evil eye, a malformed soul. She was the estranged wife of Adam Trask and the mother of his two sons, but she preferred an independent life as the sadistic prostitute Kate.
Something was wrong. A demon hardly belonged in Steinbeck's indifferent universe, among his well-drawn, realistic people. I was certain that East of Eden was a mistake, but it tugged at my brain, and I returned to it more often than to any of his other novels. When I was writing my book John Steinbeck, I read all its 778 pages--twice. And it still didn't sit right.
Then I read Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, and within the first three pages encountered the narrator's Aunt Tita, who was so sensitive to onions that they made her weep while still in the womb. The vast tears that Tita shed upon being born dried on the kitchen floor, leaving ten pounds of salt. I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magnificent One Hundred Years of Solitude and spent time in a charmed world where a boy correctly foresees the future and a woman ascends to Heaven while folding her laundry. And I read Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, with its clairvoyance, telekenesis, and apparitions. And I understood.
Latin America's magical realists enrich their stories by weaving the supernatural into the everyday. In East of Eden Steinbeck did the same thing, fifteen years before One Hundred Years of Solitude appeared in print. I don't mean to imply that Steinbeck influenced the others (although this is possible); rather, he and they were following the same creative path. Once I saw East of Eden as an early example of magical realism, I could regard it as the masterpiece that it is.
There are readers for whom magical realism is metaphor; to them it is a poetic way of describing events that might also be rationally explained. There are others, like me, who find pleasure in taking things more literally, who enjoy visiting a place where people can disappear into the clouds, where the future is something to be seen, and, yes, where demons can be born.