The People of Paper
Posted November 9, 2007on:
N.B.: There are one or two spots I’d like to add quotes as examples, probably tomorrow. As usual, with all good intentions, I left books at home I knew would distract me from hard work at school, only to end up procrastinating the day with the blog post anyway, lack of book be damned.
I’ve completed The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia and my reaction, at the end of the day, is a split between Andy Battaglia at The A.V. Club and CAAF‘s and the Rake‘s more positive reaction during their discussion of the book last year. An A.V. Club commenter who agreed with the reviewer wondered if the book’s supporters loved it simply because it was “different” which is an unfairly vague accusation. Its experimental form — which isn’t all that mind-blowing, even though I haven’t read the books CAAF and The Rake compared it to — is certainly one of its attractions. The physical arrangement of the narrative on the page followed the chapter symbols: three columns meant that the story would be arranged as columns, with the name of each character indicating whose perspective would be given. Typically Saturn, the omniscient narrator’s column, was by itself on the left page, and there anyone’s story could be told. On the right would be two columns of rotating characters. Three dots indicated a twist on the columns: there would be three character perspectives but arranged in the normal horizontal paragraphs we know and love; names were still above each paragraph. A single dot meant a single character perspective, usually written in first person.
Paper is invoked by more than the references in the story itself. I have the hardcover which is wider and longer than the usual size, more like a scrap book, and so the usual number of blank pages before and at the end of a book, and in-between different sections, take on a larger presence. (I actually felt a bit badly for all the trees used to provide so much stark blankness. Eco-libris, here I come.) In the column chapters, depending on what’s happening in the story, a character’s thoughts get shorter and shorter, or they are so long that they continue to the bottom’s edge; or in the more “normal” ones a single word is printed, framed by the absence around it. Plascencia refers so often to paper, its regenerative, life-giving powers in a monk’s or origami surgeon’s hands, and as something harmful that can mark you with so many deep scars that you bleed to death.
But I haven’t even told you the plot yet. Everyone’s a character in this novel, even Salvador Plascencia who shows up a good 100 (or so, I forget) pages into the story. Looking back I would say that at the first step into the mirror we’re in northern Mexico, close to the US-Mexico border with Merced, Federico de la Fe and Little Merced, a small farming family. Merced leaves her family for another man, because he wets the bed (they all sleep in the same bed). Federico tried everything he could think of to stop his enuresis but he did not find the solution until she left: self-immolation. He couldn’t have found it before then because it was his misery that led him to it, from her departure and misery mixed with anger at the planet Saturn who he believes is the cause of his bed-wetting. Eventually he and his young daughter (perhaps around 9 or 10 at the time, Plascencia never says and never bothers much with the clear passage of time) move to El Monte Flores. He becomes a flower picker, she attends school. He unofficially joins up with a local gang there and instigates a war between them and Saturn, awakening them to the presence of the all-seeing planet who constantly spies on them, prying into their private lives.
The second step into the mirror lead me to what I thought was “the real world”. An enterprising EMF gang member, Smiley, found Saturn’s presence comforting rather than hostile and, with the directions he got from Apolonio, a curandero (folk doctor), he climbed a mountain, broke his way through the cardboard sky and climbed through into Salvador Plascencia’s room. Here we go, I groaned, another author who has to shove his way in, god help us. That damn blurb did warn me it was “half memoir”! But it was thankfully not that straightforward at all, and that single mirror I thought I was stepping through turned upside down. I was in another heavily fictionalised world in which one of Sal’s/Saturn’s lovers, Cameroon, keeps a mason jar of bees so that she could inject herself daily with bee poison, where he appears to be writing out a script, his side at least, of a future conversation with an ex, Elizabeth of Helen, who he still loves, and where both women know the novel’s contents, even into the mythical El Monte Flores; heck Sal visits El Monte (a real town not too far from LA) and defaces EMF gang graffiti . From some reviews it seems as if some found these fantastical, disorienting terms confusing, obscure and dissatisfying. I, on the other hand, was relieved and gratified the further and further it got, on one level, from realism because it increased the author’s distance from the fictional Sal.
I realised, then, that Saturn was Sal, and this was why the third column was reserved for third person perspectives. The characters were rebelling against the creator. The prologue featured an origami surgeon who became a sort of god when he created entirely from paper, a woman, who then calmly left him as he bled to death from severe paper cuts. Not a good omen. It was Sal’s obsession with his writings that made Elizabeth (Liz) feel neglected and leave him for someone else. When this happens, Saturn retreats from the battlefield in the novel. When he returns in fighting form, it is with the help of Ralph and Elisa Landin, rich NYC billionaires who (somehow) gained knowledge of his struggle and provided funding.
It’s why I found it similar to Mulligan Stew except that Anthony Lamont is a worse writer so his characters are borrowed from other classics, driven to leave but cowed by a steady stream of painfully godawful writing. (Seriously. The reason I haven’t finished the novel yet is now less about tummy aches from laughing and more to minimise the pleasurable torture of reading the gutter “avant-garde” prose. There’s some bullshit, overwritten theoretical math paper waiting for me and I’m not eager, oh lord, I’m not.) Where Sal’s characters are more pro-active, Sal himself, while not as odious as Ooo -I-love-your-erotic-poetry-I-could-give-my-editor-a-look-at-it-how-about-I-molest-you Lamont, he’s not an adorable character. An irony throughout the novel is that both Liz and Cameroon protest at Sal’s prejudiced portrayal of them as cheating women, while he stars as a poor victim. My reaction was the complete opposite. Liz, in an untitled chapter, calls him “bitter” and that certainly fit him to a tee. He was also clueless, corny to an embarrassing (not adorable) degree, and even had his creepy moments. I saw this as an outsider though, and no doubt the point was that each of them, hurt by the failed relationship, could only look into the story and see a distorted view of themselves.
The proceedings may seem a bit chaotic but everything was tightly controlled. That was partly the purpose, or at least the effect of, set arrangements, the visual conforming to the content. There were deviations or things that didn’t work quite as I expected. A column would have Little Merced’s name at the top, but the paragraphs would be all about Sandra an EMF gang member. Or a single dot chapter for the bee keeper is told from his point of view, but in which Cameroon dominates with her observations, as he reported. Little slips like that that are here and there throughout the story, and things don’t really approach the chaotic until near the end, when both pages are filled with little boxes of characters who launch a final march on Saturn. But even that effect was illusory and their defeat was predicted from part one (the book is split into three parts). Federico de la Fe was the only character who was mostly written under the Saturn column. He never got his own paragraphs in the three dots chapters, and I think the one moment in which he had his own column it was the word “bleargh” because he was vomiting. Eventually I picked up on how it emulated Saturn’s constant vigilance over him, but at the beginning both of them were blurred together for me, and I wonder if that double vision wasn’t as accurate (or intentionally provoked) response.
What’s the book about? I’m never good at identifying or explicating such things. Love is the primary cause of all the conflict in the books various story lines. Federico declared war on Saturn because he broke up his marriage. Sandra, an EMF member, only participated because of the anguish she felt at her failed relationship with Froggy, who by then (or a bit later perhaps, I don’t have the book with me) is in another relationship. Little Merced persists in a potentially harmful habit of eating bags of limes daily, a taste she got from her mother who used to do the same. I think it also involves a love and a need for creating. Although the Vatican outlawed human creation from paper, Antonio (the origami surgeon) dealt with the dwindling unpopularity of paper organ implants, by taking it to its ultimate limit, a paper person, an act which killed him. Ever since then, Merced de Papel — so Little Merced christened her on the bus from Tijuana to LA, never seeing her again — is a dangerous woman to become close to. She has several lovers and they all carry her scars. She destroys the home of Ramon Baretto , the one man it’s suggested she truly cared for, one who pushed her away, with moths whose eggs were on the few scraps of paper he kept as a memento. He had moved to a real flesh-and-blood woman. Later in the book Plascencia reveals that some of her lovers liked to write things on her, and how the men could recognise each other in public by the paper cuts. Those moments seemed to be describing the relationship between a creator and his art, creating a parallel with human love. But the juxtaposition of two major deaths led me to doubt my opinion.
Because it’s about love, it’s about loneliness too, although I have an even vaguer idea of how the theme is built. Real characters are written into the story in different ways. The most fully integrated was Rita Hayworth, whose life Plascencia fictionalised to a significant degree, her past made into the story of a young Mexican planter who was discovered by dancing in a sketchy bar, and who once fucked a lettuce picker. She’s portrayed as a loner, ultimately, married to many men who loved an illusion — he got the Gilda quote right — and ended up in a solitary hotel room, suffering from alzheimer’s. Napoleon, whose life Sal examines closely in order to learn his military strategies and avoid his romantic failures, is a sappy lover betrayed by the devious Marie Louise who lay at the root of his critical military failures. Other real lives are framed more briefly in similar dismal contexts. Perhaps it’s a part of the doubling Plascencia developed throughout the book, except that in this case love is not a markedly happier side of the coin at all.
You may be wondering when I’m going to bring up the more negative part of my mixed reaction. I’m hesitant to highlight it because I’m not sure if I’m missing out on some ironical humour that would iron out all concerns but…. Remember that detailed structuring of the story I described earlier? What can be so wonderful in form turns out more annoying in content. As you’ve probably picked up by now (if I’ve been clear enough) there is a great deal of discernible patters, doubling and repetitions in the plot itself: love triangles and the same reasons for the love triangles, or similar reactions to break-ups and so on. An unfortunate repetition was the racial element. The Hispanic women are always going off with Caucasian men, which is always a source of ire for the Hispanic men left behind. But Hispanic men in the USA were always drawn to paisanas because it reminded them of home. Any of the positive descriptions of the Caucasian suitors were always backhanded, and the women’s reasons for going to them presented as rather shallow I think, or too predictable to the point of stereotype: Caucasians represented security, nice mowed lawns, tidy houses etc. When one of the female characters die it is the Hispanic men who truly mourn her while the Caucasians brush it off with some brief murmuring. It all fits together a bit too neatly for me and I found it irritating.
In the last few chapters it read as if the story got away from Plascencia for a bit. For most of the book I was accustomed to the gradual unfolding of what he was doing, piecing things together, jotting notes and making exclamations of recognition. Then, all of a sudden, he started explicitly stating his intentions, explaining metaphors, lifting the curtain before I got a chance to pull at the thread for two minutes. That was probably intentional because of how things were unfolding, I suppose, but I did not like it at all, and curled my lips. Around then some of the sentences were getting a bit clogged with treacle.
I can forgive a book almost anything if it ends well, if the very last few lines, the last paragraphs, leave me grandly satisfied, pleased, with that indescribable but pleasant tension in the tummy. The People of Paper did that, complete with a huge dot. Thinking about it now brings a huge smile to my face. I would read Plascencia’s next book, although maybe not in hardcover; it would depend on how long they took to bring out the paperback. They took so long with this one (it felt longer than usual) and it felt as if I’d been reading about it on blogs forever so I just coughed up the funds. It was a good deal because, considering what must have gone into printing it, it was priced cheaper than most literary hardcovers; and I probably got to read the book as it was ideally meant to be. I’d encourage anyone to try it, if only to find out = if it would be your kind of read. There should be more books like it around.