REVIEWED BY DANIEL A. OLIVAS
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 Olivas is a writer living in Los Angeles. His most recent book is Devil Talk: Stories (Bilingual Press). Visit him online at www.danielolivas.com.