Characters as Stand-ins

In class the other day I half jokingly suggested that maybe every character in The People of Paper was in some way a stand-in for the author (or “Authors” in general).  I abandoned the idea, but there is definitely a fluidity, a “fungibility,” of characters in this book. One could certainly make the case that nearly everyone in it stands for something else.  I offer this interpretation when I go back to the end of Part II, which includes as its last line, “Start this book over, without me” (138).  Sure enough, Plascencia does “start the book over,” but there is no escaping Liz (the point being, perhaps, that you can disguise or invent people and events in a fictitious novel, but your own life experiences, including the people you know, will somehow make their way, consciously or unconsciously, into your writing).  Federico de la Fe pines for Merced, the wife who left him long ago for a white man (appropriately named Jonathan Smith, like the Captain John Smith who brought the Europeans over and vanquished an indigenous population).  Federico writes to her, he hopes for her return, and he carefully prepares a perfect lawn that won’t hurt her knees when she comes crawling back to him (he wishes).  Merced never comes back, however, just as Liz never returns.

Also consider Baby Nostradamus, another stand-in for the author perhaps, who is baptized in the Church of Thieves (is it really the Catholic Church or something else; think publishers and editors) that is satirized as the Circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno (175-76). Baby Nostradamus’s footprint on the parchment shows “maps and timelines of the world, fortunes we were never intended to see” (177), a footprint Apolonia quickly smudges to ensure that the Cardinal does not see it. The author, like Baby Nostradamus, naturally knows what’s in store for the characters.  Also, Little Merced is “resurrected,” on the whim of the author or perhaps by an imagined reader demand (Conan Dolye, after all, had to bring back Sherlock Holmes after initially killing him off). Little Merced, however, is never the same; she breathes out a kind of stench that cannot be remedied. Sometimes characters overstay their welcome in a novel, and it’s necessary for an author to kill them off when they offer nothing new to the narrative; otherwise they just hang around and stink up the story (“Even the words of Little Merced smelled like rot,” says Julieta [217]).

Even Samson, who destroys the Philistines by pushing over the columns of a coliseum (234), is something of a stand-in for the author; he challenges those who would constrain and chain him, but destroys himself along with all the spectators.  In the same way, the author is consumed, even devoured, by his work and his characters.

In the end, despite the “substitution” of Merced for Liz, Liz still comes back into the story, evidenced by Saturn/Sal’s failed phone calls (236) and her transition to old age, still with her husband-who-is-not-Sal (244-45). She has a way of dominating the novel, no matter how vigorously she and the author resist or try to rewrite history.  It’s a daunting problem: How does one put words onto paper, specifically a narrative story, that express the sadness and loss experienced after a failed relationship? Perhaps the novel is one answer to that question.