More real than magic?

Sorry for the late post- haven’t been feeling well at all today…

The issue I have with magical realism is that because the reader is aware that anything is possible and accepted as real, there is nothing surprising about the text. In People of Paper, we encounter characters made out of paper, characters who resurrect after dying, and a convoy of mechanical tortoises. Like House of Leaves, the text is ergodic and requires more than a linear reading to comprehend the points made therein. The characters take turns narrating the story and the pages are split according to who is narrating. Leafing quickly through the novel, the reader witnesses long paragraphs of text totally blacked-out, crossed-out lines, and even “holes” cut in the middle of paragraphs (which are there to carefully mask the name of Plascencia’s ex- lover). Nothing too new—I’ve seen this similar style in House of Leaves before.

The only weird thing about this book, in my opinion, is that the author features himself as one of the characters. All the characters in the novel are on separate journeys to mend their paper cuts and broken hearts. They are all aware of Saturn’s presence in their lives; and they blame him for their complications—which mirrors the image of humans blaming a God for their miseries in real life; thereby alluding to the metanarrative of free-will and deterministic fate. Anyway, the characters of El Monte towards the end of the novel are warring against the author’s obtrusive narrative voice, or what Frederico calls “the war on omniscient narration (a.k.a. the war against the commodification of sadness).” Readers learn that “Saturn’s real name is Salvador Plascencia” (102). They attempt to get rid of Saturn (aka Plascencia) by using thei compounding voices and increasing the number of columns on the page to literally try to force Saturn—and conjunctively, the concept of authorial control—out of the novel. Plascencia’s use of both graphic and dramatic intensity simultaneously makes the book definitively postmodern. As this war goes on throughout the pages of the book, the reader witnesses the destructive effect of Saturn’s world intertwining with the other characters because Saturn’s inability to have control over his own life leads to chaos in each of the characters’ lives. To me, the book then becomes an allegory for the repercussions of fighting against a confused God who is responsible for human life. In this sense, I believe the novel deals with reality more than it does with magic as it seems at first glance…

Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction

Sorry this is late.

For the most part I liked the Flores article we read for class this week. It did a great job of saying what magical realism is and how that fit into the context of Spanish American Fiction. I found the article informative because I’ve known the term “magical realism” but never really knew its exact definition. Some parts of the article were frustrating however. I didn’t recognize a lot of the authors she mentioned which made it hard to relate the evidence she used in the essay to her actual argument, and some of the quoted Spanish passages were beyond my reading comprehension of Spanish. Also, this article was written in 1955–predating postmodernism–so I started thinking about how it relates to the broader scope of our postmodern theory lessons, which it doesn’t touch on for obvios reasons.

First, there’s the obvios linear path: Flores’ essay helps us understand elements in The People of Paper, the book we read this week for class. The People of Paper features postmodern elements like multiple narratives and so “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction” relates in that way.

However, there is one point Flores makes in her essay that I believe includes some of the elements in postmodern fiction. Flores writes that a crucual element to magical realism is the magical element “was accepted by the other chracters as an almost normal event” (191). I believe this is one way that magical realism can fall into postmodernism. Many postmodern writers attempt to reveal the narratives that societies follow without realizing they follow them. Magical realism is a technique that allows some of these narrative threads to be revealed. By changing society’s norms to the point where something like people made of paper is accepted by the characters in the novel and also the reader of the novel, we can get a better glimpse at the norms that define society in genereal. One example in the People of Paper is that the multiple narratives present the differing view points of what is really happening in “reality” while accepting the magical parts as true. In this way, we are given differing perspectives of the real and forced to ask questions not about whether people made of paper are real but how reality is manifest to each individual observer.

People of Paper

Sorry if this is a little late.

The People of Paper tackles the age-old book themes of sorrow and loss.  Unlike most derivative writing that deals with these ideas, Plascencia presents them in a fresh, innovative, and often comical way.  After reading some of the posts, I found that most people were surprised with the subject material in People of Paper, and their expectations where changed when reading it.  I feel the same.  Sorrow and loss are certainly not new themes in novels, yet they are far from becoming passé; there is always something to say about sorrow.  To discover this postmodern novel focusing on such recurrent topics, while employing new strategies in its presentation, made for a very interesting read, and I would agree that People of Paper is one of the most interesting novels we’ve read this semester.   I would like to focus on these themes and how they are handled in the novel. 

Frederico’s bed wetting problem served as a hilarious catalyst for Mercde leaving him.  Though it is under a ridiculous circumstance, I know of no woman who would stay with a lover in spite of such a problem, thus the bed-wetting is funny yet true.   Frederico’s self-mutilation is handled in such a way that makes the violent act seem absurd and, coincidently, heartbreaking.  Frederico’s maiming of himself may seem far-fetched, but I think it is pulled off well with the magical realism that Plascencia creates in the novel.   But the most absurd comes when Froggy adopts an Oaxacan Songbird and chooses to listen to its loud calls to deal with the pain of Sandra leaving him.  The curandero gives Froggy the bird as an escape to his distress and loneliness. 

The idea of escapism is interesting and has been touched on in the posts.  Just how Frederico, Froggy, and others escape their loss through pain, Saturn, who turns out to be a character named Salvador Plascencia, escapes his loss by creating these self-mutilating characters.  This part of the book I found strange and startling but also very interesting.  I like the idea of the writer putting himself so freely and to the forefront of the text that deals with loss.  I’ve read many novels that tackle this subject matter (there seems to be at least a tinge of this idea in at least all of them) and I’ve always felt that there is some sort of cathartic process going on, like the writer is putting his characters through loss and pain in order to deal with his own.  I think that Plascencia recognizes this and thus puts himself right in the text, like he is saying that he is dealing with it just like his characters, as if he is beating us to the punch.  

Symbols and Meaning, or Saturn, Lead, and Limes oh my

Saturn is the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Kronos, the father of the Olympian gods.  According to myths, Kronos/Saturn heard a prophesy that one of his children was going to overthrow him so he took up the nasty habit of eating his offspring.  Needless to say, his wife, Rhea, was not too pleased with this behavior so one day she decided to hide her newborn instead of giving it over to Saturn to eat.  The son she saved, Zeus in the Greek, Jupiter in the Roman, grows up and rebels against his father, eventually freeing his siblings from his father’s stomach.  This myth bears similarities to the rebellion acted out by the characters in the book against the author.  The myth also transforms the relationship between creator and created to that of father and children.  I also think that its interesting that the author chooses Saturn, the second biggest planet in our solar system, to represent himself.  One might interpret this identification as a way of compensating for his diminutive stature which he seems very self-conscious of.

When I read that the people of Monte were using lead to shield themselves from Saturn (this was before it became clear that Saturn stood for the author), I thought of the Roman empire which used lead to make pipes.  This form of manufacturing lead to a lot of sickness, and I think some have argued, contributed to the fall of the empire.  This association with decay and ruin leaches over into the ideas of psychological repression, marking it as an unhealthy activity.  The definition for lead in J.C. Cooper’s An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols further ties the metal with the book.

“In Alchemy lead is the heavy ‘sick’ condition of the metal or of human existence or the soul; it is the base metal, density, the opaque bodily consciousness, unregenerate man, subject of the work of transforming and transmuting.  The metal of Saturn” (96).

Like the lead, I think the limes that Little Merced eats are another example of repression and its destructive power.  She keeps her lime consumption a secret from her father and it eventually makes her sick.  Federico’s fear of confronting the loss of his wife drives him to seek refuge under a poisonous umbrella.  One might take this a step further and argue that Federico’s unwillingness to share his feelings and secrets with his daughter sets a bad example for her (she probably knows something’s wrong; there has to be a reason why the mother left) and his secrets end up hurting her.  If we consider Rachel Adams’s thesis from last week, that there is some kind of shift between Cold War lit and post Cold-War lit, I would say that the reactions of Federico and the EMF, their desire to cut themselves off from another entity are reminiscent of a Cold War mentality of paranoia and polarization.  They don’t hide behind an Iron Curtain, but they do hide behind a lead one.  It is when the truth comes out, words are exchanged, that people break away from repetitive and stagnant positions and seem to recover.  This also relates to trauma theory in that the people who can rewrite painful experiences and somehow integrate them into their metanarrative (as Salvador Plascenia is clearly doing) are able to recover.

One final thought on limes- limes are a sour fruit, not a sweet one, hence not usually associated with enjoyment.  Little Merced’s constant consumption of limes seems semi-masochist and parallel to the self-pitying and rumination on lost love that permeates the novel.   

 

 

limes- caustic, secret, eating, damaging

Baby Nostradamus and the Mechanical Tortoise

I thought I would touch on something that hasn’t been talked about yet–the two characters whose words can’t be read.  I am fascinated as to why Plascencia would include big blocks of black texts or binary codes in the novel.  While the latter may actually translate into words or images, the black boxes are destined to go untranslated.  Certainly this makes the novel look and feel postmodern to the reader.  (However, I would argue that it still is postmodern even without these characters.)

I initially wrote off Baby Nostradamus as a (humorous) allusion to the prophetic 16th century seer and nothing more–a gimmick of sorts that Plascencia used to be provocative in style, but maybe not in meaning.  Baby N. first appears on the bus with his mother. Little Merced makes an inquiry about him and his mother says, “At first I thought that he was brain dead; the doctors said that he was as dumb as a turnip” (23).  On the same page, the solid black box appears under Baby N’s name. As a reader, I zipped passed each of these boxes assuming the baby had no thoughts.   However, it wasn’t until chapter 23  that my reading of Baby Nostradamus changed.  In this chapter, Baby N’s thoughts are written as he instructs Little Merced in how to conceal her thoughts.  Ironically, even as he instructing her ,it is not done through spoken words, but “through telepathic lessons” (159).  The reader sees Little Merced trying to use the concealment technique to varying degrees of success throughout the rest of the novel.  Her examples are normally partially obscured by a circle, such as on page 209.  

Now the black boxes have changed for me.  It didn’t mean Baby N. didn’t have any thoughts, but rather it was that he was concealing his thoughts from Saturn/ Plascencia and the reader.  I wonder if Plascencia wrote out the passages from Baby N while writing the book and then concealed them later on?  It would make for a good creative writing exercise. Yet, the concealment strategy is destroyed on page 218 when there is an image of Saturn superimposed over the top of the black box.  Is it a mistake on his part?  Does he mean to conceal his thoughts about Saturn?  Or is initially making the “mistake” Little Merced did when she is learning how to conceal her thoughts and ends up highlighting them instead.   I keep returning to the question: what is his role in the novel?  Is he more than just a soothsayer?  At times he is humorous, foreseeing the last lines of the novel on page 166.  But at other times Baby N. feels like a convenient way for Plascencia to incorporate the non-traditional structure.  

I don’t have as much to say about the mechanical tortoises. Since the author never translates their “words” for the reader, they go largely misunderstood. With that said, on page 156, the escaped mechanical tortoise’s purpose is brought to light–when we discover that he is working against the desire of the mechanics and bringing Tijuana and LA closer together by moving the earth.  Saturn goes on to say, “This is what machines did–they bridged the distance between cities” (156). A nice summary of the role of technology in the 21st century.  

Alana mentioned Plascencia’s choice of Saturn, and I wonder if it has anything to do about the myth of Saturn eating his children so that they wouldn’t overthrow him.  Seems to fit with Saturn’s/Plascencia’s fears about the characters taking over the story.  I too wonder if there are further connections in Latin American culture.

The writer and his subjects

Wow. I had thought House of Leaves took us on a whirlwind tour de force narrative, but I think Plascencia’s People of Paper has Danielewski’s work beat. I have so many questions. I was really hooked by the Prologue and the first couple of chapters, but then found myself juggling so many narratives. Obviously there are connections between the narratives, but these connections are often vague, and I kept waiting to have some grand epiphany as to how all the puzzle pieces really come together.

One of the main puzzle pieces I found myself working to place was the question of Saturn’s identity. Initially, and at many points throughout the novel, it seems that Saturn is a God-figure. He’s all-knowing, always watching the many characters. However, the characters are able to hide from him behind their lead walls and doors and by blocking out some of their thoughts from “view.” However, we also learn that “Saturn’s real name is Salvador Plascencia” (102). Postcards sent to Saturn are addressed to Plascencia, and the two continue to be equated throughout the novel. We learn that Saturn’s great-grandfather is Don Victoriano and his father is Antonio, providing more connections between the characters and suggesting that Saturn is not a God-figure. It also seems that Saturn is, at least at times, an actual neighbor in the town because Smiley watches “the light from Saturn’s bedroom” being turned on and off (151). Saturn’s identity is clearly jumbled, but it seems that Saturn is most likely representative of the author and Plascencia is commenting on writing and the role of the writer.

The town is at war against Saturn, a war which is later referred to as “the war on an omniscient narrator” (218). At several points throughout the novel we learn that Saturn is losing some control over the story. Early in the novel he is said to be “blind to the progression of the story” (105). Later, Sandra shares that “After all these pages, as Saturn faded, it was our voices that directed the story, our collective might pressing Saturn into a corner” (216). At this point in the novel, the voices of the characters dominate the pages. Saturn is called a “tyrant” because he is “commanding the story where he wants it to go” (228). The characters want privacy. They build their safe houses to protect themselves from Saturn’s view. Even when the lead houses must be taken down, the characters are still able to withhold information from Saturn—the author—by withholding thoughts when telling their story. The clearest example of this withholding of information is when Froggy “never revealed what the letters [from Sandra] said” (244). He viewed this withholding of information as “his small way of triumphing over Saturn.” In this sense, the character is withholding information from not only the author, who has not provided full disclosure of the character’s thoughts, actions, and motivations, but also from the reader. Not all questions are answered, and some things have been left open to interpretation. The characters seem to prefer this “privacy” to full disclosure. Little Merced even feels anger “not only toward Saturn, but also against those who stared down at the page, against those who followed sentences into her father’s room and into his bed, watching […] perhaps even laughing” (186). It seems that Plascencia is making a statement about the writer’s role, suggesting that not all questions should be answered but, rather, things should be left open to interpretation, just as they are in life.

In this way, Plascencia also suggests, as Cameroon states, that we are “not of paper” (226). Cameroon says that there is a difference between telling and writing. As both Cameroon and Liz point out, an author cannot capture the whole story when trying to portray a character or a person. Text, then, and the retelling of the stories on it, becomes dangerous, as Ralph and Elisa Landin conclude (219). It is interesting that Plascencia suggests that writers embark on a dangerous task when they write their stories, and yet his novel seems so personal.

Paper Cut.

Paradoxically, I quite liked and enjoyed this book while at the same time having a lot of issues with it. Susanna and Sarah kind of beat me to the punch with their excellent posts, but I agree with Susanna’s highlighting of the misogynistic elements of the story, particularly the treatment of Mexican women who choose to form relationships with European men. I have often felt that postmodernist works have gotten a free pass on misogyny in their text (and I’m not implying that the authors are by extension misogynist, I’m just looking at textual evidence) because of the concept that misogyny is somehow dated or irrelevant to postmodernist writing-that is has somehow moved “past” misogyny. 

I also have some issues with the term “magical realism” but I think that might be more the clumsy handling of the term that I heard in other classes. I also feel like there’s been a sort of limiting categorization of Latin American literature-given that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is still probably the best known and selling Latin American author in English-as inextricably linked with magical realism. Of course, part of this is due to the limited availability of translated works. I take exception to Flores’ claim at the end of his article that “Latin America is no longer in search of its expression, to use Henriquez Urena’s felicitious phrase-we may now claim  that Latin America now possesses an authentic expression, one that is uniquely civilized, exciting, and…perennial” (Flores 192). I’m automatically skeptical about any claim of an “authentic voice.” Earlier, Flores claims that magical realists “do not cater to a popular taste…logically conceived [plots],” and makes a number of other assertions about magical realist writers that I think are open to debate. Of course, I think that part of this may be due to when Flores article was written-before the advent of discourse about postcolonialism, postmodernism, marginalized voices, etc. and I think this is reflected in the language of his article. 

I do think that postcolonial theory (which is starting to finally incorporate elements of postmodernism, rather than taking an oppositional position) applies to several aspects of the book, most notably the relationships mentioned above and by Susannah earlier. There are other, more oblique references to colonialism-Cameroon and, well, Cameroon being one of the most obvious examples-but also in the relationship between Mexico and America and the flower pickers/flower corporation-perhaps not strictly colonialism but capitalistic colonialism (for example, the flower corporation’s appropriation of El Monte’s water supply is a really interesting passage). 

I looked up some mythology about the planet, hoping that I would find something revealing about Plascencia’s choice of Saturn, but only found Greek, Roman, and some Hebrew myths. I’m interested if anyone has insight into Latin American planetary mythology and whether that might have something to do with his choice.

The Author and The Character

This is one of the more self-aware texts that we’ve read, which I thought was mostly effective. The self-awareness of the book, such as Saturn’s references to the dedication, made the book seem more realistic. Despite all the fantastical elements, the relationships and emotions within the text were somehow authentic.  However, sometimes I felt like the self-awareness detracted from the book by making it too overstated. There were sections where I thought the writer gave away some of the analytical capacity through the technique of metanarrative. For example, towards the end of the text the narrative becomes more fragmented by all the different voices. Instead of letting the reader discover for themselves why the writer chose this technique, he tells us his reasoning through Smiley: “Liberated from Saturn, from the order that had for years kept us in line, our narrative organized and mindful of the conventions of story. Now the order had been upset, lost in a melee of voices” (217). There are a couple of instances, like this one, where I felt like the writer gave too much away. I don’t want a writer to tell me how to read a book; that takes all the fun out of it.

Throughout most of my undergraduate studies I was taught that you are never supposed to assume, or allude to the fact that a character is based on the writer’s life. Plascencia seems to challenge that by inviting the reader to make connections between his characters and himself. For example, he often mentions the Ralph and Elisa Landin Foundation, who supports the war, which we know (because the book tells us) it is a metaphor for writing a book. He intentionally make sus feel like these characters are a real part of his life: “Much gratitude to the Paul and Daisy Soros Foundation…It should be noted that the foundation never recanted its support” (acknowledgments). In this statement the author tells us two things – one, parts of the book are based on his life, and two, parts of the book are complete fiction. I found this kind of confusing, but mostly intriguing. I don’t know why, but I liked reading the book more once I thought that Liz was a real person.

Throughout most of the book I lost sight of the self-awareness as I became increasingly interested in the war between Saturn and Fredrico de la Fe. I became so immersed in this element of the text, that I kept forgetting Saturn’s real role in all of this. He is the writer, and thus the creator of the other characters. Saturn, like Plascencia, cannot help but let his own identity rub off on his characters. Towards the end of the novel I began to see how the details of Fredric de la Fe’s life matched the details of Saturn’s life. They are both pining after women who left them, women who they both remember wearing green dresses with white trim. Later on in the book they use opposing, yet similar methods to cope with their loss – they tend their lawn. While Fredrico is busy caring for his lawn to make Merced’s return easier, Saturn is busy destroying his to make Liz’s return full of hardship. Despite their opposite reactions, the sentiment is the same. At one point, we even learn that Saturn had once tried to burn himself to get rid of his pain. Plascencia is trying to call attention to the intimate connection between the creator and the created.

Postmodern Magical Realism

The essay by Flores was really shocking to me in its own unquestioned assumption of authority, scathing critique, and, well, stereotyping. Is this just a ’50’s thing?? It was hard to get past for me. The history of magical realism and its evolution as a reaction to realism is useful, however, in putting magical realism into a larger context among genres, and in putting The People of Paper in a larger context of magical realist works. When Flores states that “The practitioners of magical realism cling to reality as if to prevent ‘literature’ from getting in their way, as if to prevent their myth from flying off, as in fairy tales, to supernatural realms” (191), it seems as if it is only a matter of prose style that separates magical realism from both literary dreck and other genres such as urban fantasy. (Although in the case of urban fantasy, the markers of elves and fairies would probably force it to be categorized as such, even if it were written in the most bleak and spare realist style.)

Recently, my friend got into an impromptu conversation with another girl about what qualifies a work as magical realism. My friend was frustrated that she could not explain to the girl that no, Harry Potter did not qualify as magical realism. I suggested to her that if the characters defined something as magic, then the text wasn’t magical realism, which seemed to work as a guideline for me. However, reading Flores and his more stylistic definition, I wonder how he would differentiate between magical realism and fantasy – or science fiction, which is often written in a more realist style but can still contain unexplained prophesying like Baby Nostradamus’. Apart from the typical content markers of science fiction and fantasy (space ships, wizards, etc.), one of the things that sets them apart from magical realism is their attempt at explanation of the impossible (through magic and science). Flores highlights how Kafka and Camus and other magical realist writers never explain the impossible premise of their tales, but simply move on with the realistic implications of that premise.

Apart from these signs of magical realism, The People of Paper’s postmodernist markers of multivocality, heteroglossia, intrusion of the author, foregrounding the narrative construction, and playful spirit are all present in the style. I found this multivocality much easier to read than House of Leaves’, and especially the ending, with Little Merced and Frederico de la Fe walking off the page (with Baby Nostradamus’ assurances that he knew all the characters’ lives outside the bounds of the novel) made me feel more invested in their characterization. It was odd but when the author revealed himself halfway through I began to feel frustrated, as if the fate of the characters somehow didn’t matter anymore because their construction was *foregrounded*. (Of course all fiction is constructed, but I guess I like to pretend?) However the end seemed to revert to Plascencia as an unreliable narrator with an incomplete view, paradoxically declaring victory only to be distracted by thoughts of his lost love and giving characters the power to walk off his page. As an aside, Saturn and Frederico’s view of men spurred to great achievements only because they suffered the pain of a lost love reminded me of what Russ said about the Whileawayans’ lifelong achievements motivated by the childhood pain of being separated from their mothers.

Cultural Betrayal in The People of Paper

As I was reading The People of Paper, I found myself paying considerable attention to the indictment for Mexican females who choose to be with white American males in a sort of treason against their Mexican heritage.  It is easy to consider all of the suffering and pain in this book, but I found myself aware that the empathy in this book is directed towards the “good” Mexican characters who stay true to their culture (and therefore, do not go outside the culture to look for love): Federico de la Fe, Froggy, Sandra, Julieta, among others.  On the other hand, much criticism is directed towards Mexican characters who betray their Mexican heritage: obviously Rita Hayworth, Merced (Federico’s wife), and Liz– who we might assume has committed the ultimate betrayal which led to the writing of this book (and the creating of this world at all).

This brought to mind a recent news story about Obama’s brief exchange with Hugo Chavez at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad this past weekend.  According to reports, Chavez took the opportunity to hand Obama a copy of a 1970 Eduardo Galeano book called The Open Veins of Latin America, which has apparently shot to the top of book sales list as a result of the exchange.  The New York Times article reads, “Whatever one thinks of its message (it denounces both U.S. imperialism and the ruling élites of Latin America from a Marxist-Leninst perspective), the book has a fascinating history. Galeano, who is Uruguayan, wrote it in the last three months of 1970, and was eventually forced into exile as the book grew in popularity. It has sold steadily ever since, in Latin America and around the world, with more than fifty Spanish editions, and translations into more than a dozen languages.”  http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/04/the-book-chavez-gave-obama.html

I see this news story as particularly relevant because, as much of the Latin American world struggles to find its new place in a postmodern world, books like this one by Mexican writer Salvador Plascencia remind readers that there is a strong sense of indignation directed towards Americans, but also at Latinos who “betray” their heritage by either assimilating too much or creating too much of a bridge between their own culture and American culture.

In Tropic of Orange, the “bad guy” is the body parts smuggler who betrays his own people to make a buck; in The People of Paper, it’s the women (several of them) who have left their Mexican lovers/husbands for American ones.  “Saturn” is the angry Salvador Plascencia who creates this world of like-minded, betrayed Mexican victims who suffer so much emotional and physical pain that Plascencia even suggests that readers will do the same.  Though we might say that there is some kind of healing by the end of this story, I find it to be a very, very angry story, one that some of us might write in the heat of a devastating breakup and then, some years later, be embarassed that we even considered to be literature.  Plascencia’s saving grace is that his book is about more than just a breakup; it’s about paper, people, people made of paper, betrayal, multicultural relations and relationships, and of course its format makes it stand out as postmodern, with its metanarrative, self-reflexivity, careful use of columns and black squares, and other creative choices.  But essentially, at its very core, this seems to be like a breakup story– and at the heart of the anger over this breakup is that these women (Liz, Rita Hayworth, and Merced) left their Mexican men for American men.

This anger is most clear in the heated conversation between “Saturn” and someone we may assume to be Liz in Chapter 10, in which Saturn says, “You are awful.  Worse than Rita Hayworth.  Too good to fuck us lettuce pickers.” And Liz responds, “That is not what it’s about.”  Saturn says, “You sell-out.  Vendida.  You are worse than the Malinche, worse than Pocahontas.  Fucking white boys and making asbestos fall from the attic.”  Then Liz points out that “Saturn” has had his own white lover which he brushes off with, “She was after you.  When you would not answer the phone or my letters” (118-119). 

Though there is much else going on in The People of Paper, it has gotten me wondering whether one of the connections between many of these postmodern stories is the multicultural perspective which shows the victims and sufferers of American (and European) domination.  This is not just a breakup story; it is also the story of a writer whose world, even the world he has created, is colored by anti-American sentiment, betrayal, and resentment.  We could also have a field day considering some of the misogynist lines in this book, but I find more use in considering the complicated choice to emigrate to a place like Los Angeles to reap the benefits of American consumerism, education, and opportunity in general, and then the resentment many of these characters feel for the place and the people because they have to go there and be among these people to do just that. 

Syntax and Semantics

Looking at form, The People of Paper has many characteristics of the House of Leaves.  The text does not limit itself to a traditional format or even a single column down the page.  It breaks into seemingly concurrent narratives, each column clearly denoted with its own heading.  The narratives are amended with blackouts and strikethroughs which emphasize the text’s self-awareness as well as the feeling of being in real time, keeping pace with characters’ thoughts and feeling and the revision of these thoughts and feelings.  Incidentally, the typographic revisions also inject emotion.  Instead of writing “And for Liz who taught me that we are all of paper,” Saturn writes, “For Liz who fucked everything” (Palscencia 122).  This statement, identical to the book’s dedication page, contributes to the metanarrative and informs it in a new way.  When we reflect on the dedication page, is there a sense that it will be revised or that it was revised and then returned to its original state?  Is there a feeling of tenderness or hostility?  Again, this calls to mind the House of Leaves’ dedication page, “This is not for you.”  How do we read that?  Is it a static warning?  Is it written with light-heartedness or hostility?  Regardless, the fact that we are considering the dedication page at all is quite postmodern.

Salvador Plascencia excels in his use of grammar and tense.  Like many other Spanish writers, he does not submit to a singular tense; rather, the narratives interweave the past (e.g. 91), present (e.g. 181), future (e.g. 118), and conditional (e.g. 180) tense, expressing the complex relationship between these spheres.  Moreover, Plascencia does not feel clausal shame.  His sentences are inundated with modifiers:  “In the bathtub, while his toes thawed and Cameroon sat in the next room reading impossible books about capturing birds with peppers and salt, Saturn dialed” (236).  By allowing himself the syntactical space, he gains a panoramic lens.

In the tradition of South American writers like Marquez and Borges, he does not fear passive voice.  He does not seem to fret over “telling” his story.  Consequently, he retains a sense of authorial power in the text-above and beyond the metanarrative.  The passive voice evokes a history of story-telling and oral tradition.  In doing so, he points to the power of the narrative in everyday life:  the stories that we tell ourselves and our responsibility in constructing these stories:

Saturn concentrated on the future, staring at her finger and the way it seemed to hover the longest over the ringed planet, and then looked at her face, wondering what it would be like to touch her Gypsy hair again, to wake in her bed and taste her paper lips and write love letters complete with graphs and charts on her paper skin as she slept, so she would wake and say, ‘You wrote all this for me?’ and Saturn would simply nod. (245)

From a thematic perspective, The People of Paper lands antithetical to the House of Leaves.  While Danielewski would have us believe that we have no control over our own narratives, Plascencia emphasizes the pursuit of narrative control rather than end result of that struggle.

Paper

Disposable, renewable, impermanent.

In his initial dedication, Salvador Plascencia writes “to Liz, who taught me that we are all of paper.” He later cuts out this dedication, emphasizing his point.

We jump into the story with a little boy buying back his three pounds of feline and reconstructing his slaughtered cat Figgaro. The prologue sets us up for themes of destruction, loss, and subsequent rebirth or renewal. It also places us in a magical realism situation, where we must accept that people can be made of paper.

Plascencia takes us into a world of impermanency, one where people are constantly shedding skins or changing. In the most physical sense, there’s Merced de Papel, who “never allowed history to accumulate, her skin changing with the news of the world.” (164) Other characters are changing themselves physically (burning, cutting, patching, covering up in lead); fleeing their own lives and leaving dust; or altering their identities in some other way. People become non-people, or at least not themselves. Rita Hayworth, for example: “Margarita Carmen Cansino shed syllables from her name and velvet curtains from her stage, rising, leaving a tail of draperies and scraps of paper cut from her birth certificate, to emerge as a star” (56) Hollywood’s presence, in the form of carried winds and background music, is a constant reminder of temporality.

Salvador Plascencia becomes a non-person too. He forgets about his characters (poor Smiley…) and then shuts them out to the point where they are able to censor their thoughts from him and the readers.

But I think The People of Paper also ironically confirms the existence of some kind of permanency. His one paper character is the last of a dying breed. And this novel is Plascencia’s way of physically documenting history. Incriminating himself for casting Liz in a bad light, he leaves everything he’s already told us where it is and writes on without her, or rather, with just her presence hanging over him much like Saturn hovers over de la Fe. He hasn’t actually deleted anything or pushed her out of his mind (or ours). She just becomes the girl who can’t be named. Paper allows his version of history to live on and be consumed by voyeurs like us who, like he says, don’t even know these people.

He also makes us aware of the book and its physicality, its history and process, even its price. He goes so far as to imply some readers would lick it to simulate licking Merced de Papel. I found Plascencia’s author/book/reader relationship more thought-provocative than, say, Joanna Russ’s abrasive/defensive approach in The Female Man, even when Plascencia denies us access to the text by blocking it out or relating to us the inner thoughts of the mechanical tortoise in binary code.

In fact, I like the complementary nature of form and function (combined with imaginative, often heartbreaking writing) so much that is my favorite book we’ve read so far. Plascencia manages to insert himself as a character halfway through without making me want to throw the book into a door. And just when I start getting annoyed with his despondency, he goes ahead and starts over right in the middle. He is repairing his history with paper, like Merced de Papel repairs her skin, like Antonio repairs his butchered cat.

Escaping Their Thoughts

     When I first began reading The People of Paper, I had no idea what the book would turn out to be about.  While I was reading the prologue, I was envisioning a trailer of a quirky computer-animated film based on this book.  It turns out this book is not a childproof story, as the title, cover and prologue may have indicated to me; it is in fact a story full of paper cuts, scars and emotional suffering.  The novel opens up in heartbreak and feelings of loss and abandonment that afflicts almost all the major characters.  Self-inflicted pain is a subsequent and recurrent motif in the book that is initiated as a mode of escapism by most of these miserable characters. While I was searching for a topic for my research paper, I came across a few texts that talk about psychological detachment and disassociation as a way of protecting oneself from a horrific experience/reality, and I started to pick up on how the characters in People of Paper are severely traumatized.  Even some of the minor characters that we only get a glimpse of, such as Sandra and Merced, show signs of emotional torment through nightmares and addictions.  These characters are willing to endure physical pain in replacement of the emotional, and this act of constriction or numbing is a way of resisting their individual traumatic narratives.  Each night, Federico de la Fe sticks his hand into his stove “until it hurt so much that he could not feel his sadness” (20).  For him, fire cured his itch, his bed-wetting, and his sadness.

      In the light of this reading, the war against Saturn is another method of resisting the trauma narrative, as members of the EMF attempt to conceal their thoughts and memories by hiding under lead that is too dense of a metal that “not even the most powerful x-ray in the universe could penetrate” (26).  They will be able to escape these thoughts if they manage to hide them from Saturn who is responsible for writing about their experiences and is therefore the cause of their emotional suffering.  Consequently, the “fight for emancipation” is initiated and the EMF members cover their houses with lead.  It’s interesting to see that the repression of their psychological and emotional pains always must come with a price as the lead causes their stomachaches and subsequent vomiting.  Figuratively, their escape from their grief through silence, again, causes them physical pain. 

     Another method of escaping emotional pain by avoiding being on Saturn’s radar is achieved by baby Nostradamus and Little Merced.  Baby Nostradamus teaches Little Merced mental strategies to consciously block her thoughts from Saturn and she is able to acquire that power and gradually progress through practice.  I think several aspects of the book remind us all a little of House of Leaves, especially the layout and the use of metanarratives, but have you noticed the many random dots in the book? For my midterm project, I talked about the appearances of various forms of dots in House of Leaves and suggested that they represented absence, silence, emotional void etc. and I find it quite daunting that the big dots that appear at the end of the book are one form of Little Merced’s silenced thoughts.    

Metafiction

We discussed self reflexivity of a text as one of the characteristics of postmodernism on the first day of class.  This is, in my opinion, the most self reflexive of any of the texts that we have read so far this semester (although House of Leaves would be a very close second).  I give The People of Paper a slight edge because the actual author Salvador Plascencia shows up in the novel, as where Danielewski stayed hidden.

When it become clear that Plascencia is Saturn and a character in the book, the first thing that came to my mind was the movie Adaptation.  In the movie, Nic Cage plays Charlie Kaufman, who is the screenwriter of the movie.  We watch as he struggles with a script for a movie based on The Orchid Thief, eventually writing himself trying to write the script into the script he is writing, which is the movie we are watching.    Kaufman’s personal life effects what is happening in the script and the script is effecting what is happening in his life until the two become inseparable.  The book, the script about the movie, and Kaufman’s life are involved in this intertexual relationship that is the movie (the movie itself become part of the layering of the intertextuality as well).  For anyone who has seen a Charlie Kaufman movie, this paragraph makes sense, if you have not, it probably does not.  Kaufman’s latest movie Synechdoce, New York also deals with a lot of postmodern ideas, but I did not want to discuss it here because I am pretty sure I need to watch it again before I can make any sense of it.

Like Jennifer, I am sometimes annoyed by the authorial intrusions in some postmodern works (John Barth comes to mind for me as well).  However, I did not mind Saturn/Plascencia in this novel.  Instead of just popping in to remind us that we are reading a fictional work like some metafiction, Saturn’s role shows us how Plascencia is actively shaping the story.  The writing of the story and the resistance the author recieves from both inside and outside the fictional world he creates is the novel.  Just like in House of Leaves, once we learn something about Truant (namely Pelafina’s letters) it casts a new light on everything else that we have already read.  Merced leaving Federico de la Fe, Rita Hayworth snubbing lettuce pickers, the seeming cold-heartedness of Merced Del Papel all seem to take on a new meaning when we consider what happened with Salvadore and Liz.

Anthony wrote about it in his post, but I was wondering what other people thought of the treatment of women in this novel.  Is it misogynistic? Is there really a Liz? does it matter?

Authorship/Form in The People of Paper

This is the second book in a row that I won’t be able to finish in time, which is frustrating because this is due to a lack of time rather than a lack of interest. I still wanted to post on what I’ve observed so far, namely on authorship and form. Immediately–maybe three pages in–I was reminded of House of Leaves, per various voices claiming the page. In House of Leaves, Danielewski uses different fonts to distinguish between Zampano and Johnny Truant, and uses the appendix so that Truant’s mother, too, informs the text. We spent a great deal of time in class talking about authorship with that book, as I’m sure we’ll also do with this one, given the nature of authorship in these pages. Per that nature, or rather, structure, Plascencia distinguishes between authors not via font but via capitalized headings, columns, and chapters. Reading through this various authorship was, for me, not necessarily easier or harder than reading through the authorship in House of Leaves, though, to clarify, when engaged in Zampano’s text, I knew right away when the authorship changed to Truant due to the font change, whereas in The People of Paper, I sometimes made the mistake of reading a second column with the assumption that I was following a continuation of the same author from the first column. It was only when the POV in that column contradicted this that I was reminded to scan up to the heading to see who was speaking. As I progressed through the book, I didn’t make this mistake as often, for the form became more familiar.

While the various authorship reminds me of House of Leaves, the omniscient Saturn brings to mind the film, Stranger Than Fiction, where a character becomes aware that he is indeed a character. Certainly, Federico de la Fe feels aware of this Saturn/Author that follows him and Little Merced, forcing Federico to hide in mechanical tortoise shells, etc. The book falls in line with some of John Barth’s metafiction, notably in his short stories in  Lost in the Funhouse wherein the author interrrupts a story to discuss his process in writing the story or to otherwise insert some authorial information into the narrative. I had always disliked the effect this had on the story–that temporary removal of the reader from and subsequent insertion of the reader back into the text, but Plascencia frames his differently so that it is not a matter of interruption but a matter of structural authorship; in other words, the reader knows from the very first page of The People of Paper, just like the reader knows in House of Leaves, that this is indeed the way the narrative is structured, therefore you’re not reading a traditional narrative for twenty pages and come across a sudden, off-putting interjection by the author, as was the case sometimes with Barth. Mary Karr, in her memoir The Liar’s Club, writes a relatively straight narrative but for a sudden shift to second person in one paragraph in the middle of the book where she speaks to a man she had been formerly writing about in third person–a man who, as a child, had molested her. This accusatory paragraph directed at “you” stands out for me in the book because it was unexpected and it departed from the otherwise solid, objective memoir. This seemed, to me, to be the kind of thing that would’ve been weeded out in a workshop and I’m curious as to her defense of that paragraph.

I just wanted to note, lastly, that I was both envious of and in awe of the fact that this is Salvador Plascencia’s first novel, not to mention the fact that he’s a recent graduate of an MFA program and only three years older than me…

“Under the wreckage, the whole town was crushed, the mighty Samson among them.”

Never before (or after) was a haircut so disastrous…

In the Book of Judges (13-16), the story of Samson unfolds, and this story is all too familiar for nearly everyone in The People of Paper: a man, weakened by the seductive powers of a woman, meets his demise.

As a Nazarite, God has given Samson superhuman strength, which he used to defeat the Philistines on numerous occasions, killing thousands along the way.   Samson’s story in Judges 13-16 plays out like a see-saw of revenge between him and the Philistines.  Twice Samson experienced a woman’s betrayal, the latter resulting in his demise.  Samson’s wife, Delilah, assisted the Philistines in defeating him.  By cutting his hair, Samson’s agreement as Nazarite was broken, and as a result, “the Lord had left him” (Judg. 16.20).  With Samson’s power lost, he was taken into custody by the Philistines, and (long story short) he was brought in front of their Kings and harassed: “they made him entertain them and made him stand between the columns” (Judg. 16.24-25).

A tactical error, however, was made by the Philistines; they allowed Samson’s hair to grow back, allowing him to recuperate the Lord’s strength, and…well…Samson was pissed:

So Samson took hold of the two middle columns holding up the building.  Putting one hand on each column, he pushed against them and shouted, “Let me die with the Philistines!”  He pushed with all his might, and the building fell down on the five [Philistine] kings and everyone else.  Samson killed more people at his death than he had killed during his life. (Judg. 16.29-30)

Salvador Plascencia uses Samson’s story in the final chapter of The People of Paper.  He likens Saturn (or Sal or Himself?) to Samson: a man with superhuman strength brought down by the woman he loves.  In both cases, love for a woman turns on itself, acting as a smokescreen for the uprising of the newly strengthened masses (Philistines/EMF).  As Samson loses his superhuman strength, Saturn’s control over his own story slips from his grasp.  Saturn’s authorial voice is absorbed, and the book’s characters take control (note: chapter fifteen (one of the numerous ‘columned’ chapters) begins with Saturn’s column blank for three pages).

The structure of the book’s final chapter demonstrates the ultimate showdown between Saturn and his characters.  Literally nineteen different voices collide, competing for the book’s authorship and (perhaps most importantly) the book’s final word.  Like Samson, however, Saturn ‘prevailed’.  Samson found renewed strength in capillary regrowth, and Saturn’s body “adapted” to the sadness of his lost love, allowing him “to summon enough strength to press against the columns” (242).  At last, “[o]nce the first support was down the others were easily tipped, all the columns falling, giving Saturn full control of the story” and subsequently the last word (242); appropriately, that last word is “sadness”.

As a reader, we witness this battle between author and his subjects, but whom are we to support?  In the final chapter, Rita Hayworth complicates this question:

It is Delilah who is the hero, the one who brings the brute down.  Avenging the deaths of the thousands he killed.  Standing up for the Philistine people and the tender skin of their cocks. (235)

But in what light are we supposed to view Rita Hayworth?  She forsook her lettuce pickers, substituting the new for the old.  Come to think of it, much of the novel is about substitution: old, lost loves are replaced by newer ones.  Just about all of the characters in this book participate in some kind of substitution, and so the big questions that I’m not quite ready to answer are: Do these substitutions work?  Do they provide workable alternatives?  Can the broken-hearted ever heal or, at the very least, manage the weight of their losses?

I’m not sure.

One last note of interest: Although Saturn ‘succeeds’ in taking back his story, eliminating the other authorial voices, the final paragraph suggests he has not truly regained power:

Together [Federico de la Fe and Little Merced] walked out of their stucco, through the softest of all lawns, and Little Merced, who still stunk of dead fish, raised her parasol, shading her and her father.  They walked south and off the page, leaving no footprints that Saturn could track.  There would be no sequel to the sadness. (245)

Saturn can no longer contain the characters within the borders of the page.  Without Federico de la Fe and Little Merced, Saturn cannot write a sequel.   The story ends not because the author has chosen to end it, but because he has lost the power to extend it.  Perhaps this echoes Samson’s story.  He must sacrifice himself to kill the Philistines: “Under the wreckage, the whole town was crushed, the mighty Samson among them” (234).

Enjoy:

Grateful Dead’s “Samson and Delilah”