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.