Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Review: The People of Paper. Salvador Plascencia.

The People of Paper. Salvador Plascencia. McSweeney's Books ISBN 1932416218

Michael Sedano

I have always wondered why Graciela Limón is so hard on her women characters. The mother who goes in search of her lost son, Bernabé, suffers incredible hardship, one thing after another, in a wonderful novel. Hard-driving, immensely successful but lovelorn, Ana Calderón, finally finds a passionate true love who fulfills her immensely, only to become a Chicana Jocasta, in another superb novel.

These women have done nothing wrong, no monstrous sin nor hubris, certainly nothing to deserve the anger of whatever gods there be. “Why is the author so hard on her characters?” I asked on the wonderful old CHICLE discussion board. Limón wrote back, “My characters tell me how to write them.”

Despite having other writers tell me the same thing--the characters control the story, not the writer—I’ve found that a perplexing perspective. Now comes Salvador Plascencia’s impressive experimental novel, The People of Paper, once and for all to lay the question to rest.

Plascencia peoples his book with characters revolting against a writer’s omnipotence. At first, this isn’t obvious. The book opens with an impressively imaginative story, a tour de force revolving around an origami-based genesis. A renegade group of monks fold paper into various shapes. Form of a cat, breathe life into it, paper becomes cat. A disciple folds heart, lungs, liver, places inside the folded body in the shape of a woman. Puff! She becomes a flesh-and-blood woman. Magical. The plot begins to unfold when the Pope, threatened by the competition, expels the monks, who go wandering in search of safe refuge to fold more people of paper and pass along the knowledge of their sacred book.

One monk falls off the line of march, and it is his creations who people the book. Migrating from Mexico to El Monte, California, the characters find community among the flower picking cholos of EMF. Their relatively idyllic existence begins to crumple when an agitator convinces EMF to take up arms against an all-seeing being whom they call Saturn.

Saturn reads El Monte’s every thought, eavesdrops every conversation, looks down on every private act. Saturn has a name: Salvador Plascencia. The patient reader learns this just as the book turns back on itself. In fact, Plascencia re-starts the tome after chapter fourteen, posting anew the dedication pages and title page.

Obviously, “experimental” is a fit term to describe the work, not “novel”. To read it from start to finish demands patience—to get to some funny stuff here and there—and tolerance. The latter because the writer abandons any effort to create a literary work in pursuit of self-indulgent vengeance against a former lover. At one point, an obviously overwrought writer turns the story from a character's infidelity to his ex, bitterly posting one word repeatedly, "cunt". It is an unpleasant twist in the book's numerous clever tricks.

Plascencia was the subject of a lively discussion at La Bloga in response to a Los Angeles Times interview quoting the writer’s pleasure at being published outside what he views as a chicano literary barrio.

His point is well taken. Despite the book’s peopling with Mexican and Chicana Chicano gente, its Mexico and El Monte settings, and its use of conventional Chicano literary property, The People of Paper is not Chicano Literature. Self-indulgent name-calling to settle old romantic scores makes it roman a clef with an audience of one. Literatura Chicana, Chicano, tends to thematic content intent on community-building stuff, formation of an ethos, an exhibition of intercultural writing skills bridging the divide between the Mexican and the Unitedstatesian. Give Plascencia one out of three.

Self-indulgence isn’t foreign to Chicana Chicano work—take Rain of Gold, for example—but a work of such authorial selfishness as The People of Paper might better have been put aside until the author’s writer’s block had dissipated enough, or his broken heart mended, to complete the novel promised by the stunning opening pages.

Speaking of self indulgence, did you hear about the vaquero who walked into the bar dressed in cellophane? He had cellophane boots, cellophane trousers, cellophane chaps, cellophane camisa? He was arrested for rustling. ¡pa-pum!

Note. Did you check out the NY Times' Children's books special in the 11/13 NYTimes book review? Gives more credence to the stereotype of an east coast bias in literary criticism. La Bloga's Gina MarySol Ruiz' column highlights one outstanding title after another, but from the grey lady, not a peep about Chicana Chicano kidlit. OK, Gary Soto gets a nod in the best illustration category. I suppose this goes with the graphic novels Time magazine recently recognized. I will get that Norton Anthology, and the dozens collection looks like a winner, too.

Hasta, raza, and fellow readers. Read on!



Manuel Ramos said...

Quite a review - in fact, it left me wordless for a hot minute. Now I just got some ramblings.

There are some intriguing concepts in your post: the idea of "characters revolting against a writer's omnipotence;" the self-indulgent writer; your definition of Chicana/o Lit requiring political and cultural content - híjole. I only have a couple of observations but first I should confess - I have not finished this book. I started it, put it down one night and haven't returned. Maybe now I will - in the meantime I had to read the type of fiction that reassures me - Dutch Leonard and The Hot Kid.

In any event, if People of Paper is in any way autobiographical, which you indicate is most likely the case, then how could his book not be self-indulgent? Same for Rain of Gold, if I understand how you are using "self-induglent." Comes with the territory, so to speak.

I don't buy into the notion that characters take over - characters don't surprise the writer but the writer can surprise him/herself (that's not original - expressed most recently by a writer I interviewed for a magazine)-but I understand the sentiment. This stuff comes out of nowhere and before you know it, there it is on the page, and the writer is left with "what the hell?"

Finally - what is Chicana/o Lit? That's kind of where we (La Bloga) started, ain't it?

Anonymous said...

self indulgence of the shameless variety is what i find. the mere act of writing is self-indulgence, so i shoulda been more precise.

we might delve into the notion of community building as distinct from political content. the motive of building an ethos holds more sway in my comprehension than the life of the polis, at any rate.

i'm in houston tx this week. carried with me chicano and lorna dee cervantes' new collection, Drive. The First Quartet.

Anonymous said...

I got ramblings too, since I haven't read the book yet.

About Plascencia's "characters revolting against a writer’s omnipotence"--my own take on this is that I half-agree with Ramos, but only half. The stock phrase "my characters write themselves" doesn't do much to explain the phenomena, tho it's cute and plays well at booksignings.

To draw on a non-Chicana, and great American, Susan Sontag, "What writing feels like is following and leading, both, and at the same time." (In America).

I think of it as the conscious normally leads a writer, especially when editing, but sometimes also the conscious follows the unconscious, or perhaps it's the soul doing the leading then. The writer in me, at least, struggles with each, not always certain which he'd do better to follow.

I like your input here, and the Plascencia quote, pertaining to the realm of Chicano Lit. But I won't otherwise touch that.

Nice post.