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.There is also, of course, the bizarre.
* * *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:
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.
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.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. ;)
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.
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.