s.penkevich's Reviews > The People of Paper

The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia
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Sep 24, 2011

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bookshelves: metafiction
Recommended for: Seekers of creative new forms, metafiction fans, and kids who can't get over their ex
Read in July, 2011

In the Cohen’s film Barton Fink, Barton (John Turturro) says he believes “that writing comes from a great inner pain.” Plascencia seems to also subscribe to this belief In The People of Paper, as the “great inner pain” felt by the author and all his creations is the impetus for their lives and actions. This novel pushes metafiction to new boundaries and does really unique things with form, however, the novel does have its share of pitfalls as Plascencia’s obsession with the “inner pain” begins to chafe on the reader after so long.

The Good
The story of The People of Paper follows Federico, his daughter and EMF, a Mexican gang of carnation pickers, as they wage war on Saturn for spying on their every move. As the story unfolds, countless strange characters pop up, from a women made of paper who sleeps around, a baby Nostradamus who sees all, and lead turtles just to name a few. Saying anything more about the plot, even the smallest detail, would give too much away as this novel employs a highly creative story and it would be a shame to ruin it. There really are a lot of good things going for this novel, as Plascencia wields some rather innovative tricks, literally cutting names out of the pages (actual holes where names should be), blackening out hidden thoughts, and allowing the author and characters to comingle with each other in a way that was very fresh and new to me. It was similar to O’Brian’s At Swim Two Birds, but taken to the next level with Plascencia actually being rebelled against by his own characters. Also, the form of the book changes with many chapters having Saturn’s part in one column on the left page while two different characters have the story told from their perspective in two separate columns on the right page. Pretty cool, eh? He also uses this technique wisely, using varying perspectives to gain further insight into situations and having the reader observe events in a jumbled fashion, often learning the end of an event before the beginning of it, while making sure not to let different perspectives overlap over the same anecdote. The book reads as highly surreal and magical, and the final scene is exciting and fascinating. All in all, this book is expertly written and thankfully the gimmick does not tire or wear too thin.

The (overwhelming) Bad
Plascencia tries his best to dazzle you with all his metafictional finery because the actual substance of his work is where the magic of the book really begins waning. As stated earlier, the inner pain felt by all the characters, and Plascencia himself, is what drives this novel. In its opening chapter, he crafts a quirky little metaphor of the book, showing art being brought about from pain and loss. Basically, a death drives a young boy to create magnificent art that literally takes on a life of its own, akin to Plascencia’s own goal with The People of Paper. The novel then takes the reader down rough winding roads of break-up stories and heartbreaks, one after the other repetitively to the point of obnoxious, showing how love cuts deep and drives us to commit many strange and depraved acts just to rid ourselves of its heavy burden. It reminded me of that friend at the end of high school who had a savage break-up and it was all fine to hear them out and console them and support them, but as time went on and they didn’t pick themselves up and move on, instead spinning the same forlornly tirade over and over, it begins to be irritating. That’s how this novel comes across after awhile; you may find yourself wanting to shake Plascencia by the neck and tell him to ‘get over it’ because you don’t need to hear about how sad his unnamed girlfriend leaving him makes him. Every character is a sack of tears slogging across the desert trying to free themselves from their inner pain, and maybe it’s just that I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t bemoan past heartache, but it really detracted from the book for me. Also, Plascencia finds it imperative to tell you about how his new girlfriend, who is more of a person to sex the pain of his ex away with, has a massive bush. He brings it up constantly. All these supposed ‘negatives’ I have brought up all do have their place in the novel and are part of what makes it good, but there is just a bit too much of it. The book left me wanting in a few other ways as well since this is a very surface novel. There is not much lying in wait beneath the words to be untapped and I felt there was so much emphasis on the flair of the book that the subtleties and depth was greatly sacrificed. This novel could have benefited from more editing and polishing, but it is important to keep in mind that this book is very experimental, so when parts don't seem to run smoothly or things fall apart slightly to give him some credit for being original.

With this novel, you must take the good with the bad. There really are a lot of good aspects, from the stunning metafictional plot, the unique forms, and outrageous cast, but the novel never really rises out from the pit of love's despair. There is hope, but there is a near endless trail of incessant wailing to get there. If you are at a point in your life where it feels good to embrace heartache, and admittedly we all go through this phase, then this book is a perfect choice for you. Had I read this a few years ago it probably would have made a larger impact on me. It should also be noted that if you pick this up, try and find the hardcover published by McSweeny’s as it is a masterpiece of art on its own. This book is worth getting through for its metafictional form, but I would suggest At Swim Two Birds or, of course, Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler… as more fruitful options. While some may argue good writing comes from this “inner pain”, it should be noted that the William Faulkner-based character of the film Barton Fink responds to this statement by laughing in his face, relieving himself on the ground, and sauntering off down the road singing drunkenly. I do not wish to draw any conclusion from that myself, so take that as you will.
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Comments (showing 1-20 of 20) (20 new)

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s.penkevich Thanks. I wanted to like this book, there was a lot going for it, but every time he got the ball rolling he would break down and sob for a few pages. I'd still recommend it for its inventiveness, but if break-up pouting irks you as much as it does me, then I'd say skip it.

s.penkevich Yeah, I don't blame you for putting it down. I'm glad someone else knows that movie, it's one of my favorites. I've drunkenly shouted 'I'm a writer you monsters!' far too many times because of it.

message 3: by Stephen M (new)

Stephen M I tried reading 20 or so pages out of this book for a class and my head was spinning. Then our teacher explained the whole conceit of the book and I was interested but worried about over-gimickness.

s.penkevich Your worries were well grounded. Stick to If on a winter's night a traveler. The ideas were good and all but I've read many better ones since then, Cloud Atlas included. It is pretty cool to flip through the book though.

message 5: by Stephen M (new)

Stephen M Ah yes, Calvino. Another on my to-re-read-very-soon stack. Ugh, too many books, so little time and patience.

s.penkevich Ain't that the truth!

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio This is the second time, in less than a week, that a book that I'd just ordered/received, has been reviewed less than favorably by a reliable, similarly-minded GR friend. The other was Exercises in Style as reviewed by my GR pal Drew.

message 8: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Jan 22, 2012 08:09PM) (new) - added it

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Your reviews would've probably caused me to order two other books from the list of hundreds that I'd like to read. Fate is not on my side here, people!

message 9: by Lawyer (new)

Lawyer S., a great introspective review from you as always. The premise sounds intriguing. However, the pages of sobbing goes against the "No Whining" sign I have on my library shelf. *grin*

Paquita Maria Sanchez Well, that's a drag. I really wanted to read this one. Maybe I still will, and then you can come to my thread and say "I tole ya so, stupid!" In those words, please.

s.penkevich Mike wrote: "S., a great introspective review from you as always. The premise sounds intriguing. However, the pages of sobbing goes against the "No Whining" sign I have on my library shelf. *grin*"
Ha, this is definitely a book to yell 'no whining' at! And to Joshua and Paquita Maria, I would say still read it if you have been interested in it. There are plenty of positive reviews, which are what sold me, and the book does have it's merits. It just left a bad taste in my mouth, but I would like to know what you think. I feel like the guy from Reading Rainbow saying 'but don't take my word for it' ha. This is a cool book to own and show people, as they did a lot of interesting things with the form. There are some excellent points to it but I just got tired of hearing about his ex and about how much he plays with his current girl's bush. It's that up front about it.

Good to know about Exercises in Style, I've been intending to pick that up at some point but now I'll probably pass for something else.

Megha Sounds like both of us had a very similar experience with this one.

Megha This blue cover looks nicer than the one my borrowed-from-library copy has.

s.penkevich Megha wrote: "This blue cover looks nicer than the one my borrowed-from-library copy has."

I just realized I have it reviewed under the wrong edition, I have the hardcover one that shows up with your review. I liked it, until the ink of the sky started coming off on my finger in the heat of last summer. Now theres huge white fingerprint 'clouds' on the cover.

message 15: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus Also, Plascencia finds it imperative to tell you about how his new girlfriend, who is more of a person to sex the pain of his ex away with, has a massive bush. He brings it up constantly.

*blatt* That horn means you're out of time, sir, and thanks for playing our game! Vanna, what do we have for Mr. Plascencia? A toaster? Oh, a *toasting*! Like a roast, only not as good!

message 16: by Garima (new)

Garima This one is really negative Sven. Oh look! 18 likes only :P

message 17: by Lee (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lee Great review -- or at least it matches my experience. Muff. I can't think of specific examples but I feel like other McSweeney's books also have issues describing sex etc. Maybe someone has a big muff in John Brandon's first book? Can't remember. Haven't read the Flann O'Brien but read the Calvino too long ago to remember. I think there's also a Borges story in which a character comes to kill the author?

s.penkevich Lee wrote: "Great review -- or at least it matches my experience. Muff. I can't think of specific examples but I feel like other McSweeney's books also have issues describing sex etc. Maybe someone has a big m..."

Ha, should have read this before I left you that big rant on your review (which is great by the way). Yeah, now that you mention it, there are some awkward McSweeney sex times. Though sex is really a tough subject to get right in a book, it can quickly turn into creepy (Stephen King's h.j. scene in Pet Cemetery always comes to mind, unless I'm mistaken and it wasn't meant to be sexy, which it failed at haha) or awkward. Like sex itself I guess haha. Yeah, I think there is a Borges story like that, I'll have to look for it again. I hear Light Boxes by Shane Jones is really similar to this one, and potentially a bit better, so I've always meant to check it out.

message 19: by Lee (last edited Dec 03, 2013 08:35AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lee Very much of note and historical literary interest: scroll down about a foot through the comments for "dialogue" from four years ago between the authors of this one and Light Boxes about similiarites.

Personally, I had a similiarly appreciative/apathetic reaction to both books. I've written "wildly inventive/whimsical" stuff like this too and am sure many reactions to it (if ever published), will be appreciative and apathetic -- such is the fate of the semi-surrealist/fantastic subgenre.

s.penkevich Oh wow, that is incredible. Even Blake Butler briefly weighs in. Plascencia comes off as aggressive, but it is probably warranted. I mean, he does have a point about everybody comparing those two books, but Jones makes good points too. The modern age definitely allows people access to authors unlike before, so much can be learned through two authors arguing it out in a comment section ha. Future biographies will contain thread discussions as references ha.

That genre does seem to take a lot of flack, even from people who enjoy it. I like the surreal, but can only take so much of it in the right balance. I'm sure your works are great though. I liked his ideas and his form, just got sick of his crying and the forced melodrama ha.

Thanks again for the link, that was really cool.

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