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…

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

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

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.