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The People of Paper

“Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin.”Donald Barthelme

Where to begin? Salvador Plascencia‘s debut novel, originally published in the US by McSweeney’s, begins with tear-soaked monks on the march, walking “until [they] forgot the location of the factory,” a factory where people were “born of the ground” and from “the marrow of bones” until it was shut down by Papal decree: “All would be created from the propulsions and mounts performed underneath bedsheets — rare exception granted for immaculate conception.” Antonio, an origami surgeon, meets a breakaway monk (numbered 53) who imparts the whereabouts of the fabled factory and he creates Merced de Papel from scraps of paper, “spilling leaves of Austen and Cervantes, sheets from Leviticus and Judges, all mixing with the pages of The Book of Incandescent Light.” Her heart is made from index pages of journals, a heart that never leaks or bursts, yet Antonio is unable to prevent her walking out the door.

Yet, this is only a beginning. Federico de la Fe, a bed-wetter and consumed by a biblical sadness when his wife leaves him, takes the number 8 bus from Mexico and heads for Los Angeles with his daughter, Little Merced, to the “dress factories and the technology of a country that would learn to soak color into the gray celluloid world of Rita Hayworth,” ending up in the east LA suburb of El Monte. Other characters of note include Rita Hayworth, not only alive and well, but Mexican, having shed a few syllables from Margarita Carmen Cansino to become a superstar; Juan Meza aka Mexican wrestling hero Santos, avoiding a Vatican delegation determined to return him to his status as a saint; Ramon Barreto, haunted by his ex-lover Merced de Papel (“on Sundays it is the weekend edition that I spread on my mattress, the glossy ads I set by my pillows, and the newsprint I spread all the way to the foot of my bed”); and the Baby Nostradamus, when we first meet him, a blacked-out column where text should be, on account of him being born in a mediative state. Not forgetting the character of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture and harvest and a harsh teacher who favours endurance as Shani in Vedic astrology, in The People of Paper he is “the most resentful and unforgiving of the planets and also is one of the saddest, second only to tiny Pluto,” and is Sal Plascencia, the author himself.

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.”

ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Susan Tomaselli lives in Ireland where she edits the inimitable Dogmatika. Read an interview with her here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 11th, 2007.