The first thing that caught my attention about the novel The People of Paper was its title. I was intrigued. Who were these paper people, I asked myself, and where did they come from? Perhaps, it was a metaphor for fragility and mortality. I went to the library to get the book and find out.
I quickly discovered that it was both literal and a metaphor. In the novel there is an actual woman made of paper, called Merced de Papel, and a host of characters whose emotional fragility leads them into a myriad of schemes, adventures and campaigns. Author Salvador Plascencia creates a fantastical world in which the out-of-the-ordinary is taken as common place. This includes, among other things, mechanical turtles that roam the streets, plagues of mythical proportions that ascend upon the earth and a serial bed-wetter who engages in a war against fate.
The few people I had met, previous to reading The People of Paper, who had actually read the novel had a difficult time summarizing its premise, which, I thought at the time, could be either a good sign or a very bad one.
I now know where they were coming from. It is hard to explain, in so many words, what the book is essentially about, in part because it encompasses so much. There are dozens of characters introduced (Little Merced, Margarita aka Rita Hayworth, Federico de la Fe, Froggy, Cameroon) and even more fantastical creatures (mechanical turtles, Baby Nostradamus, a seemingly mentally-retarded baby who holds the history of the universe in his eyes, Saturn, the ringed planet as a character against whom a war is raged). It's hard to keep track of it all. But, somehow, Plascencia manages.
The novel strongly reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; it has the same poetic quality and the same taste for the absurd. It is magical. However, at times it is so over the top that the emotional core of the story is sidelined. The characters experience genuine sadness and loss, but instead of facing these matters head on Plascencia cloaks them in absurd imagery and tucks them behind preposterous tasks. I feel like he didn't quite get at the meat of it like he could have and took the easier road by using metaphors and crazy ideas rather than actually dealing with what his characters were going through. Nonetheless, The People of Paper is a mastery of magical realism regardless of its lack of analysis.
The ingenious layout of the book itself (it's divided into three parts and shifts point of view between characters every few paragraphs and, in some cases, a few pages) is worth the trip to the bookstore or the library if nothing for a quick appraisal of its organization and artwork. The People of Paper is a shining example of how McSweeney's Books takes publishing to the next level. Even a quick perusal shows the care with which the book was assembled. This novel is more detail-oriented than any I have read -- it is no assembly line product.
However, I wondered how much of the book was written by Plascencia and how much was guided by his publishers. Did the author think of all the quirky little inserts -- the little drawings, the graphs, the weird patterns -- or did his editor? Did he put them right into the manuscript while writing or were they put in afterwards?
But these additions and the organization begin to feel like a shtick. A hundred pages into the book and it became too much. Instead of following the characters or getting caught up in the plot, I caught myself puzzling over things like the strange hand gestures that don the beginning of each of the book's parts. At times, The People of Paper is so "out there" that it distracts from the story, and that is not a good thing.
The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia
Hardback, 200 pages