Salvador Plascencia - Sublime And Hallucinogenic Dangers Of Orgasms With Origami


Salvador Plascencia, People of Paper (McSweeney's, 2006)


«Wow! This has to have been the most weird, wild and wonderful book I’ve read in the longest time. The book begins with a boy who creates paper organs to save his butchered cat and becomes the world’s first origami surgeon. The book goes on to tell of monks in secret factories, a woman of paper, a little girl named Merced and her father who cures himself of sadness by burning his flesh.

Merced and her father Fernando de la Fe leave Mexico and wind up in El Monte, California picking carnations. They encounter gangs, the woman of paper, and a whole assortment of strange and unusual characters. An unlikely war begins against the planet Saturn and the gang members from Monte Flores, led by Fernando.

The People of Paper is violent and bloody, haunting and strangely beautiful. A man’s tongue bleeds and bleeds from paper cuts received while giving a woman of paper cunnilingus, a wife leaves her husband because she is fed up with sleeping in pools of piss, turtles become armored tanks. It is unreal and real, fantastic and sublime.

The book is allegorical, beautifully written and most surprising. There are paper tricks throughout the book as well that normally would annoy me but in this, they just fit so well with the story that I found myself enjoying them hugely. What really surprises me is that this is a debut novel.» - Gina Ruiz

«Salvador Plascencia’s debut novel The People of Paper is a wonderfully strange, hallucinogenic and hypertextual blending of fiction and autobiography. The Prologue’s first sentences thrust us into an almost familiar yet purely mythical world while introducing Plascencia’s sly brand of humor:

“She was made after the time of ribs and mud. By papal decree there were to be no more people born of the ground or from the marrow of bones. All would be created from the propulsions and mounts performed underneath bedsheets—rare exceptions granted for immaculate conceptions.”

The papal decree shuts down the monk-run factory where people were made so that humans could be free to populate the world in a more organic fashion. They begin a march that “was to proceed until the monks forgot the location of the factory—an impossible task for a tribe that had been trained to memorize not only scripture but also the subtle curvature of every cathedral archway they encountered.”

But one monk, the fifty-third in the procession to be exact, sneaks away from the formation and wanders off. He eventually gives the coordinates of the padlocked factory to the brilliant paper surgeon, Antonio, who uses the factory to create his masterpiece, the “she” of the first sentence. Antonio, when finished, collapses on the factory floor, blood dripping from his hands. The paper woman silently steps over him, leaves the factory and walks into a storm:

“The print of her arms smeared; her soaked feet tattered as they scrapped against wet pavement and turned her toes to pulp.”

Now comes the strange part (or the first of a series of strange parts). Chapter One switches from standard book-page format to what will become a recurring visual motif: columns (similar to the look of a typical newspaper), each one headlined by the name of a character and written either in the first or third person. We learn of Saturn, the omniscient presence who lets us see poor Federico de la Fe, a bed wetter who is married to the beautiful Merced. They have a daughter, Little Merced, who sucks limes like her mother and who loves her father very much. Merced cannot stand the bedwetting (at least that is Federico de la Fe’s belief) so she leaves him for another man. To quell his heartbreak, Federico de la Fe discovers a “cure for remorse”: the infliction of pain through fire. He also decides to leave Mexico and head to Los Angeles where he and Little Merced can begin a new life. On the bus, they encounter the Baby Nostradamus whose columns are not filled with words but with black ink. They also meet the paper woman who tells Little Merced that she was never christened. So Little Merced dubs the woman Merced de Papel—a name that can translate loosely to “paper favor” or “at the mercy of paper” or even “thanks to paper.”

Federico de la Fe and Little Merced eventually settle in El Monte, a predominantly Latino community about a dozen miles east of downtown Los Angeles. It is here that Federico de la Fe becomes the leader of an army to fight Saturn who lives in the sky and can read everyone’s thoughts. Federico de la Fe recruits a gang of cholos as his troops. Other story lines abound. There’s Margarita Cansino, the Mexican beauty who sleeps with lettuce pickers until Hollywood discovers her after she changes her appearance to look white; she becomes Rita Hayworth. Merced de Papel makes a home in Southern California and passes the time by sleeping with many men who cut their tongues and fingers on her private parts; these men belong to a secret society of those who have suffered such exquisite paper cuts. There’s also the wrestling saint, Napoleon Bonaparte, a curandero, flower pickers, Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles, a glue sniffer, and a mechanic who makes robot tortoises whose lead shells Federico de la Fe uses to encase the homes of his troops to keep Saturn from penetrating their thoughts.

And who is this mysterious Saturn? As the novel progresses, we learn that he is a Mexican who is dumped by his Mexican girlfriend, Liz, who falls for a white man. Saturn eventually attempts to fill the void with another woman, Camaroon. All the while, a curious cholo, Smiley, who doesn’t heed Federico de la Fe’s warnings, searches out Saturn to learn whether he is good or bad. How does he do this? He rips a whole in the sky and enters the bedroom of Saturn aka Salvador Plascencia. Saturn is really nothing more than a writer. And his creations are taking over his life. Smiley confronts Plascencia who sadly does not recognize him much to Smiley’s consternation. Is he not important enough a character that his creator should know him immediately? Too many characters, apologizes Plascencia. Too many to remember.

The battle continues. Plascencia fights heartbreak. His creations fight for autonomy. When Plascencia is too depressed to control his characters, their voices spill onto the page in haphazard fashion, columns running vertically and horizontally, all semblance of plot ripped apart by voices wanting to be free and heard. At one point, the novel begins again when Camaroon complains about being turned into a character in Plascencia’s book.

What an astonishing, strange and deeply moving novel this is. In all his playfulness, Plascencia nonetheless grapples with troubling issues of free will, religious fidelity, ethnic identity, failed love and the creative process which he melds into a dreamscape that is impossible to forget. Plascencia—the God of his paper people—has given us a startling work of fiction that stretches not only the norms of storytelling, but also the bounds of our imagination.» - Daniel A. Olivas


"Like Dave Eggers’ obtrusive authority over the text of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, The People of Paper becomes not only the story of the people of El Monte, but of Salvador Plascencia, as the novel falls apart over a woman. He writes: “You weren’t supposed to spill put of the dedication page. But then you fucked everything. Made holes in my ceiling, cracks in my ribs, my whole wardrobe to dust. All for a white boy.” And in a BS Johnson “fuck all this lying” moment, Liz, of the dedication (“And to Liz, who taught me that we are all of paper”) and the cause of Sal’s heartache, dispels the lies Saturn has told and retaliates with: “In a neat pile of paper you have offered up not only your hometown, EMF, and Federico de la Fe, but also me, your grandparents and generations beyond them, your patria, your friends, even Cami. You have sold everything, save yourself. So you remain but you have sold everything else. You have delivered all this into their hands, and for what? For twenty dollars and the vanity of your name on the book cover.”

Spurred by lost love, Saturn wages a Napoleonic war on Federico de la Fe and EMF (El Monte Flores), a gang de la Fe employs to bring about the Saturnian fall, to wrestle back control of their privacy, a counter-war “for volition and against the commodification of sadness,” a revolution against tyranny and eventual emancipation from the sight of Saturn. News of Saturn’s war reaches New York millionaires Ralph and Elisa Landin, who pledge funds to sponsor Saturn’s war for love, but with provisions — “Number of times the word ’sad’ appears (inclusive of ’sadness’ but excluding ‘Pasadena’ and ‘asad’): 53, Number of times the word ‘happiness’ appears: 4, Inventory of heartbreaks” — only to withdraw support at later on.

The People of Paper is a fantastical world, no doubt: part Swiftian, part Borgesian, entences full of Garcia Marquez and Kafka and with more than the occasional nod to Italo Calvino. It is also a dazzlingly designed novel: the narrative is rendered as columns of multiple perspectives on the page, with each chapter lead by * * * * glyphs, and as the order breaks down, black spots blot out Saturn’s prying, words are literally punched out of the paper, ink fades… And what of the ending? Sublime. Little Merced and Federico de la Fe walk south and “off the page, leaving no footprints that Saturn could track. There would be no sequel to the sadness.” - Susan Tomaselli

For once, a summarist almost got it right with the jacket copy:

Amidst disillusioned saints hiding in wrestling rings, mothers burnt by glowing halos, and a Baby Nostradamus who sees only blackness, a gang of flower pickers heads off to war, led by a lonely man who cannot help but wet his bed in sadness. Part memoir, part lies, this is a book about the wounds inflicted by first love and sharp objects.

Except there's so much more. Instead of The People of Paper, they should have called this The Book of Extended Metaphors, to go along with one of the books between its covers, The Book of Incandescent Light. They should have called it The Book of Heartbreak or The People of Sorrow. They should have equipped it with warning signs and seatbelts to protect those of us naive enough to get caught up in the fairy tale first pages, those of us who ignored for a moment that this is a book for mature adults, people with scars, people who should not expect a book about a childproof world. They might have dropped a few more hints, might have whispered: "This book will lock you in a shed of tears."

They should have said the truth: This book is sublime.

I read the book like a person in the first throes of love, blindly, enraptured, captured, chained, and, in the end, tortured and bereft. This one's for you, Susan: Here is your erotics of art.

Except isn't The People of Paper all about the dangers of orgasms with origami? Remember the story it tells of Merced de Papel, the last of the paper people made by St. Antonio in the days after ribs and mud and before Swedish bioengineering - Merced de Papel, who traveled to Los Angeles and was loved by many men, creating an ad hoc tribe of people scarred with paper cuts on their most sensitive skins. Remember the story of Liz, who loved Sal, who dreamed a world and wrote a book and couldn't have the book and the world and Liz, and so he created a Saturnalia of spite and loss, of names cut out of pages and dedications taken away.

I don't know of another book where the metafictional games are so necessary to the ultimate emotional effect, where the fireworks explode fantasy and reality to rain down not wonder, but heartache. The experiments of typography do not create any real difficulty for the reader, but instead evoke a visual and sometimes even physical analogue to the narrative, bringing the story beyond words. Watch the colors, for instance. It is no coincidence that dominoes are a passion for so many characters here - letters combine into words and words combine into sentences like a game of dominoes with twenty-six numbers to place together in infinite possibilities, to stack up in paragraphs and knock down in pages, the black dots of ink on the white tile of paper. Notice, too, how little color is in this world, how much depends upon green lettuce, the green rind and pulp of limes, a green dress. Little drops of poison. Paper cuts, each.

I could go on and on. I could tell you that what might feel like an anarchic concatenation of voices in the book is actually one voice trying to find a way out of grief, I could tell you why I think this is a novel that cleverly dresses up anger and hurt to pretend they are sorrow, I could exhort and proclaim. But instead I will end with two paragraphs among the many I loved:

He folded the letter, stuffed it into an envelope, and affixed postage. Saturn did not know her zip code or apartment number or the city where she had gone. He put her name on the envelope. Below her name he described the types of places where she might be: cities with rivers, streets with breezes, apartments with steps, rooms with canopies.

Still, three weeks later, there was no reply - just an itemized bill from the Postmaster General requesting reimbursements for maps of cities and waterways, for wind-velocity meters, and for all the man-hours spent climbing steps and peering into strangers' bedrooms.

It could be a bill from a voracious reader, that. It could be a cry against a book that, if you have any heart at all, will make you cry.» - Matthew Cheney

"In The People of Paper, Plascencia mythologizes his hometown, El Monte, drawing inspiration from the fables he learned as a child at his grandparents' farm in Jalisco. Among the novel's dozens of overlapping vignettes are those of a woman who escapes to El Monte when her Mexican town suddenly, and inexplicably, turns to dust; a soothsaying infant who transmits his prophecies through ESP; a girl obsessed with sucking limes, who dies of ''citric poisoning,'' only to be resurrected several days later by a miracle; an origami woman constructed from old newspapers, whose kisses give her lovers nasty paper cuts on their tongues and their other extremities; Rita Hayworth (nee Margarita Carmen Cansino and, in Plascencia's version, born in Jalisco instead of Brooklyn), who is mocked by the lettuce pickers in Jalisco when she abandons them for Hollywood; and a man who persuades a local gang to wage war against the planet Saturn, which he suspects of reading the townspeople's thoughts. (Saturn is later revealed to be the author himself who, alas, emerges as a central character in his own novel.).

As wondrous and comically inventive as many of these episodes are, they never cohere into a single, larger story, a problem that Plascencia's exhausting use of typographical gimcrackery - blotted-out text; razored-out text; sideways text; text split into as many as five columns across two pages, each column representing a different character's narrative - cannot camouflage. Still, Plascencia has done a nice job of creating a radiant, peculiar world that forms a convincing borderland between Hollywood and Jalisco.» - Nathaniel Rich

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