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.  

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.

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.

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.

Tropicana of Orange

Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange seems to me a smorgasbord of postmodernism qualities: shifting point of view, issues in globalization and consumerism, media saturation, a mixture of genres (magical realism, film noir, disaster fiction, etc.).  Indeed, as I read Tropic of Orange, a number of other texts came to mind.

It was one of those days when [Emi] just felt like a little adrenaline high for real-life horror.  Maybe because it was disaster week.  So far she had been to a fire, to the scene of a robbery, and had chased the NewsNow van chasing cops involved in a two-hour car chase that started in Burbank and ended up in Whittier.  But the thought of seeing mangled bodies in a car wreck suddenly churned about in her stomach.  She could always see it on TV.

Perhaps it is becuase we just read Mao II not too long ago, but this passage (and many others in the novel) feels like it could be in one of Don DeLillo’s novels.  The idea of this ultra-saturation in media; Emi has an obsession with disaster footage like Mao II‘s Karen.Yamashita’s dialogue also feels a bit DeLillo-ian with its peculiar wit and humor.

Tropic of Orange‘s structure reminded me of another American author often associated with postmodernism (also female, also a minority [Native American]).  Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine is told through many different characters, whose stories and lives collide and contest with one another.  Like Yamashita, Erdrich also employs elements of folklore and magical realism.

Side note: In the spirit of disaster oranges, I heard about this recent product marketing debacle from a friend.  Earlier this year, Tropicana changed their ‘classic’ straw-in-orange  logo to a new image.  Tropicana enthusiasts, however, were not so pleased with the new look, and Tropicana saw a substantial drop in sales over only a matter of months.  One of the popular reasons for the mass- disapproval was that the carton looks ‘cheap,’ too much like the generic-food brands.  Consumers said that they might as well buy the generic orange juice if their Tropicana was going to look generic itself.  Subsequently, Tropicana has decided to bring back their classic carton design.  I chuckled when I heard the story.  Has the consumer gone from buying food because it tastes good to buying food because its container looks good?  Has the image of the orange juice surpassed the juice itself?  I think we can attribute some of this to a nostalgic demand.  I thought this was a tiny bit postmodern and appropriately orange.  I only hope McDonald’s doesn’t decide to freshen up their logo…we could be looking at World War III.

The Real Disaster Orange
The Real Disaster Orange