Sunday, August 15, 2010

Book Review: The People of Paper, by Salvador Plascencia

The People of Paper is one of those books that seems to make "literary types" want to fall all over themselves gasping at its brilliance, declaring that if you don't like it, then you probably "just don't get it." It's a weird mix of the surreal and the prosaic - origami surgeons and giant mechanical tortoises exist in Plascencia's world, though the overarching themes of the book are the very human experiences of heartbreak and loss. The book's fans hail it as part fantasy, part autobiography, which is kind of interesting, I suppose. (I suspect most autobiography is not without some element of fantasy or alterations in memory, whether intentional or unintentional; this book just takes that to the extreme.)

The plot is difficult to summarize. I don't think it's giving away too much to say that the overall premise of the book is about an author at war with his characters. He's trying to watch their lives and write their stories, but they grow tired of his voyeurism and find ways to shut him out. The author then gets wrapped up in battle with his characters, effectively shutting out and driving away the women who try to love him. Naturally, both the frame story and the...framed?...narrative deal extensively with sadness and the different ways people have of coping with it. These comping mechanisms are, with I believe only one exception, always destructive addictions, as the characters cause themselves physical harm trying to keep psychic angst at bay.

The physical layout of the text is also worth mentioning. Some chapters are set up in columns, three abreast, advancing the story from different points of view. Other chapters are formatted more traditionally, with the paragraphs taking up the whole width of the page, though the perspective continues to switch from one character to another. I thought it was going to be really distracting and confusing, but I actually didn't mind so much. It just seemed a teeny bit...gimicky, I guess.

I think it's difficult for me to fall in with the crowd of admirers because it feels like Plascencia is trying too hard. That's not to say there weren't some bits of his prose I found kind of beautiful. Here are a few snippets:

It was the first street gang born of carnations. But for them there was no softness in the petals and no aroma in the flowers. They felt only the splinters and calluses from tilling the land and smelled only the stench of fertilizer and horse shit. Their shoes were wet and the cuffs of their work pants crusted with mud. At midday they took off their shirts, wringing the sweat and then tossing them over their shoulders. And always a cutting knife was in hand. It was from these blades and hands that bouquets and potpourri came.
* * *
Curanderos could restore the levels of the drying oceans, they could repair broken teeth and collapsed retinas, and if God was distracted and not looking they could even pull people from the grip of Purgatory--provided the appropriate fee was paid.
* * *
[He] was of the belief, grounded in ancient philosophy, that after a certain amount of accumulated mass, sadness ends. And so he cited:

Saint Nicholas
Don Ho
Winston Churchill
Sir John Falstaff

All fat and jolly people. Though jolliness was the saddest form of happiness, it was a happiness nonetheless.
* * *
[He] 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.
There is also, of course, the bizarre.
She offered to tell my fortune with the help of her baby. She grabbed my hands, squeezing my fingers while I stared into the eyes of the Baby Nostradamus.

As she traced my lifeline, the blister on the tip of her index finger ruptured, and the fluid channeled into the ruts of my hand. The outer lines of my palm became tributaries feeding into the main river. I lifted my hand toward my face and saw that I was holding the river of Las Tortugas. As I looked closer I saw our old adobe house and the orchard that lined the river, the trees heavy with limes. A family with goats and dinner doves had moved in and planted maize on the dirt roof.

Downstream, at the cliff of my hand, there was a couple taking a bath. I could not recognize the man, but he was pale, his beard trimmed, his hair unkempt and curly. At first I could see only the woman's back. She stood in the water, her hair still dry, but as she turned and grabbed the pumice and soap lard from the rocks, I saw that it was my mother.

I closed my fingers, collapsing the trees into twigs and the river and banks into a clump of mud, and threw it into the street.
It's the sort of book that maybe, for me, would be good to read in the context of a class or book club or something. Maybe it's true that I "just don't get it," and there's a deeper brilliance that I'm just missing. The author portrays himself, in the "autobiographical" frame story, as deeply flawed and fairly unsympathetic. Maybe it is a mark of courage to write so honestly about the ways heartbreak can make us a little crazy and vindictive. Or maybe it's just a lot of narcissistic blather. ("You don't know my plight!") I won't say it was a waste of time to read The People of Paper (thanks AM for loaning it to me), but I also won't say it's a book I'm interested in revisiting or holding in especially high regard. However, I know at least a couple of people who have read it, so if either of you (or anyone else who has read it) happen to be lurking here and feel up to commenting, please do! I'm interested to read what you think, even if you think I'm an unsophisticated clod for not loving the book. ;)

Edited to add: We're going no-holds-barred in the comments, so consider this your warning if you've any interest in not reading about specific plot details.


a said...

I enjoyed TPoP, though I agree it has a look-Ma-no-hands feel to it. I'm not a sophisticated enough reader to suss out the line between a work of brilliance/insight/groundbreaking technique and a work of an author just kind of being a self-important blowhard. (For any book, really, but especially for any fiction that would be described with words like experimental, or meta-, or post-modern.) So I don't know if I'd say I thought TPoP was great, but the parts that I liked loomed large and sort of crashed around in my brain for months after I read it, overshadowing the gimmicky-seeming or awkward bits that bothered me.

susan said...

See, I don't think I managed to hit that sort of balance with the book. I'm sitting here trying to come up with parts that struck me, and I can't think of anything that really stands out above the fray. I didn't especially love any of the characters, though I think I probably liked Apolonio the best. Or maybe Smiley. If you don't mind my asking, what were the grand bits that resonated with you?

a said...

Hmm. Well, I liked being tricked into thinking that things he made up were true, and that things that were true were actually absurd. Example: I totally bought that Rita Hayworth was Mexican until one of the characters in the book called the author out on it. (I hope I'm remembering this correctly; it's been a long time since I read it.) I looked it up because I wasn't sure who to believe in a fight between an author and his character. In contrast, the EMF, which I loved and thought was just charming plot device, is real.

At this point I should probably confess that I have a known fondness for magical realism, which I know isn't everybody's cup of tea.

I'm surprised that you say you couldn't find a balance... unless it was just for your recommenders' benefit (maybe to soften the blow of not liking it? ;) ), this looks like one of the few books you've reviewed for which you either marked or went back and found particularly beautiful phrases or scenes. The quotes you included, heck, even just the first and last (not the last-last, the last-not-bizarre) would be enough for me to forgive, like, at least half of the Baby Nostradamus sections. :)

susan said...

I was fooled by the Rita Hayworth story, too.

I think possibly you're just kinder than I am as far as what constitutes an acceptable balance of good writing and weirdness. ;) Not to say that all weird is bad, but (for example) I couldn't get into the whole Merced de Papel subplot. If it was supposed to be a metaphor for something, I didn't really get it. And the crossing over of fantasy elements into the frame story - Sal says at one point that his (actual?) grandfather has another grandson/nephew/younger relation who was an (actual?) origami surgeon - didn't make sense to me. I get that magical realism isn't really supposed to make sense, but I didn't understand the point of the crossover. And weird for the sake of weird doesn't generally cut it, for me.

As you may have guessed, I don't read a lot of books in this genre. ;) Possibly it's just an acquired taste, or at least one that requires rather a bit less determination to find meaning in every little thing.

AP said...

I agree with "a"--I don't read enough to decide what is brilliant or not. I just know that there were beautiful passages that made my heart hurt & sometimes flutter...surprisingly enough. I got frustrated too, at parts that were difficult to understand, & just glossed over it, figuring "I'm not smart enough to catch that bit." But I liked the jumbled format & holes in the paper, & thought it was a fun read. Hope it was at least worth your while as entertainment if not for some enlightened reading experience :)