The People of Paper
“Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Dolores Cansino in a coastal town in Jalisco, where at the age of six she sowed a plum orchard irrigated solely by salt water. When the sea was dry she resorted to onions and sad memories to water the black soil.” That account may come as a surprise to the New York-born Hayworth, if she were still alive to witness her appearance as a minor character in Salvador Plascencia’s magic-realist novel The People of Paper. It’s probably also not true that she bedded Howard Hughes on a cushion of fresh Kleenex or that she was presented ceremonial bouquets of washed red-leaf lettuce in honor of her selfless promiscuity among the migrant lettuce pickers of her homeland. But her fictitious exploits are among the most rooted in plausibility among Paper’s population, a census of which would include an ecstatic bee-sting venom addict, a surgeon who reanimates the dead by implanting carefully folded paper organs in their vacant chests, and an all-origami woman whose lovers must weigh the pleasure of cunnilingus against the inevitable paper cuts on lips and tongue. To say nothing of the Baby Nostradamus.
Plascencia’s audacious first novel documents the struggle of the quixotic residents of Las Tortugas, Mexico, against the planet Saturn’s continual pull and omnipresent gaze. It’s not as though Saturn (whose steady glare is revealed to be that of the author staring down upon his characters) doesn’t have his own heartaches, too. His girlfriend has left him, and the loss prompts him to start his novel all over again midbook, this time with a new dedication and with every printed mention of her name scissored out of the paper. Meanwhile, back in Las Tortugas, Little Merced discovers that if she concentrates she can will blobs of black to sprout over the page and obscure whole paragraphs, blocking the view from the reader and confounding Saturn’s control over his own story.
Plascencia’s handsome prose infuses Paper’s boundary-busting format with melancholy and enchantment, perfectly complementing the lucid multicolumn layout that allows each character his or her own voice in turn. Magic and profound (and wildly ruleless without ever losing its way), The People of Paper is a sizable triumph, a satisfying summer read for thinking people. Just don’t tell those spoilsports at the Hayworth estate.