Tuesday, July 05, 2005

July's Book: The People of Paper, by Salvador Plascencia

The People of Paper, a perfect mesh of memoir and fiction, is the best new book I've read in the last three years. It's a once-in-a-long-while type book, a book of immediate consequence, considered right away for canonization, a book that makes other ways of writing look amateurish and dated - a book that seems to do everything right: it is experimental and beautiful; it is intellectual and easy. It marks the end of one great era (Postmodernism) and the beginning of what looks to be another (Aesthetic Mythicism?). At any rate, it is the early new standard of writing for the next generation of authors and readers. Read it, love it. It may be awhile before you read another book this inventive and magical and true.

The People of Paper: a perfect case-study of a creator's heartbroken psyche.
Salvador Plascencia: author and main character; on trial.

I cannot recall reading a psychological investigation into the effects of heartbreak on a writer's imagination that is as profound or beautiful as this one. As the story begins, we find ourselves in a tumultuous world full of magic and miracles, where a professional wrestler is discovered to be a saint in hiding, where housewives have halos, where whole towns turn to dust, where a woman made of paper - the last of her race - is making her way north, along with others fleeing the pervading decay, to America. They are running from loss, looking for happiness, seeking, finally, some kind of control.

Salvador Plascencia, who is also a character in the book (referred to early on as Mars), is also battling loss, looking for happiness, seeking some kind of control. His love for a real woman in his real life world has been betrayed; so, as a writer, he is compelled to find control in his imagination, in his writing: he turns inside of himself, to the world he can make up, to the world he can lord over as dictator. He has power there. He can monitor the flow of loss, the amount of pain and happiness. It is the kind of control he needs in his own life.

His characters are not unlike him. They feel, like Plascencia feels, the overwhelming oppression of uncontrollable loss, the helpless frustration of being subjugated to the whims of a higher force. Once settled in their new American home - a small California town of flower fields and magical happenings - they find a certain degree of comfort, but still feel themselves under the compassionless control of an omniscient being. That being, they know, is Mars. The characters, led by Federico de la Fe, do what Salvador Plascencia did: they fight to exert their own control over their destinies. They declare war on Mars, who, unbeknownst to them, is their creator. They declare war, then, on their own existence.

After Plascencia is discovered by one of the gang members to be Mars - he pulls down a corner of the sky and sees Plascencia in his bedroom - the story switches to memoir, and we get a sober (and beautifully bitter) glimpse into the circumstances that led Plascencia to become Mars and write his book. We see his side of his real life lost love. We see his pain. And though the reader clearly understood and enjoyed his fictional story to this point - the one called The People of Paper - everything suddenly is much clearer and much more enjoyable. There is no longer one story of loss, but two: we see that not only has Plascencia suffered heartbreak, he has suffered in his writing. His love is gone. His book is all but broken. Even his imaginary characters have declared war on him. There is nowhere for Plascencia to turn.

There is much, much more to this book. It is filled with delightful writing on every page. It is provocative both stylistically and contextually. It damns pain but praises hope and faith. The characters - both imaginary and real - will make you laugh and cry, shout and sigh. It is full of legend and history, satire and parody, myth and magic, and serves as a spotless testament to the power of imagination, whether the imagination is accurately rendered (like Plascencia's) or invented by an author (as is the case with everyone else in the book, whether they are real or made-up).

Most of all, it is a book of love and life and what it means to be.


For another insightful review of People of Paper, this one by Daniel Olivas, go here.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Books Read in June

A Long, Long Way, by Sebastian Barry

A WWI novel about an Irish lad fighting a fight he isn't entirely sure about fighting. He is too concerned with his height for my taste - he can't let go of the fact that he could have been a policeman like his father if not for his being too short - and the reader is never quite sure if the girl he leaves for the war really loves him or not. The book is full of beautiful prose - Sebastian Barry can craft a sentence, there is no doubt about that - but the story feels less complex and emotionally demanding than it should be, considering that the backdrop, and indeed the main character, is World War I. A good book all around, but not one I'll long remember.

The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., by Robert Coover

My fascination with Coover continues. This book - I want to call it Coover's best, but what about the others? - is about an office worker who designs a fantasy baseball game that is played with three dice and a complex set of charts. Named one of Sports Illustrated's Top 100 sports books of all time, this is the perfect gift for any baseball fan. Coover's knowledge of the game is deep, and his passion for myth and rich history is again on vivid display. Reading this book is a bit like reading the history of the MLB, except that this history is all made up. The figures, though, from the 1st year to the 57th, are as real and interesting as any who have really lived. The book serves, finally, as both a perfect tribute to the American traditions of myth and baseball: the two pasttimes are intertwined (as they are in real life) to the point that each seems to represent the other. To the point that each seems unable to survive without the other.
(This book was going to be the feature review for this month until I read The People of Paper, which ruined everything.)

Ghost Town, by Robert Coover

No, I can't get enough. And you expect more by Coover in the months ahead. He's written many books and I plan on reading them all.

This short gem is about a nameless drifter in the Old West who can't keep himself away from a ghost town in the middle of the desert. It's typical Coover - full of myth and parody - but this one, even more than his others, seems to be about the beauty of language. There is a pervading philosophy of the re-living of loss (all the characters, including the nameless drifter and his "hoss" turn out to be ghosts), and there is a little fun poked at the expense of the Western, but ultimately, Ghost Town is yet another Coover experiment with style and syntax. Highly, highly, highly recommended.

Poppy's Place, by Sylvia Renfro

A romance novel. Surprised? So am I. I don't know much about the romance genre - my experience is limited to a childhood of avoiding the thousands of them that lined my mother's bookshelves (and a bit of Jane Austen, if you consider that romance) - so I admit that I feel a little out of place commenting on this book. It's a bit like commenting on a culture you're experiencing for the first time: there are things you know you like and things you know you don't like, but you don't know what's normal, you don't know what expectations and ambitions are held, and you don't know in what tones you should talk, or even which words you should use.
But the book at times feels very much like what I know. As someone deeply concerned with environmental issues, I was immediately empathetic with Poppy, who cares for the Mojave National Preserve, and her frustration with environmental apathy. This, to me, was the most compelling thread in the book - a thread put under duress when Poppy meets Josh, a filmmaker who wants to shoot in the preserve. Poppy, who has had bad experiences with men and moviemakers before, is understandably pessimistic. How could she ever reconcile her passion for nature with her curiosity for this man, who is likely no more than a danger to her and the land she loves?

This is a conflict familiar to all of literature, and Renfro handles it well, if a little formulaicly. Her characters are individual and unique, her words well-chosen and effective. This is Renfro's first novel. I think if she continues to write, she could find a great style that manages to combine literary aspirations with her love for the romance genre.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Just a Thought

Coming Soon