The People of Paper (Mexico)

People of Paper book coverby Salvador Plascencia

When I lived in Japan in the late 1990s, we got two porn channels. We weren’t supposed to – we hadn’t paid for them, nor did we want them. The reception was often fuzzy. The one thing we could see clearly, in contrast to the blobby bodies gyrating in a field of snow, was a bouncing black dot.

A Japanese friend told me this dot was intended to hide the actors’ public hair, which is considered disgusting in Japan. (Of course, she added, true perverts were delighted when it slipped.)

That black dot is present throughout this book, along with sideways text and other cutesy postmodern formatting. The story itself is good, if a bit more earthy (piss and shit) than I like. The author could clearly tell a good story before an MFA program got hold of him.

The “Poetry Voice”

black dotWhile reading this novel, I heard a voice in my head, and it was singing “”Mama don’t allow no MFA poets ’round here.” The song was created by former Idaho Writer-in-Residence Gino Sky, and it sums up what my husband and I call “the Poetry Voice” – a plummy sort of way of reading your work which has a dry, droning, Ivory Tower cadence both pretentious and weirdly captivating. It makes you think you should read like that – like all the life blood has been sucked out of your story, because God forbid you should shout or show an emotion!

This is a story struggling so hard for legitimacy that it detracts from itself. Maybe the (first-time) author thought if he simply told a great story, it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t get past the formatting, which didn’t help tell the tale, but obstructed it.

The Good Bits

pink lunch boxA key scene early on is when the Mexican immigrant daughter goes with her father to a junk shop in L.A. and he buys her a pink lunch box. She’s noticed that all the brown bag kids at her school have to sit at the plastic picnic tables and the lunchbox kids get to sit on the grass in their nice clothes. So she confidently goes to join the lunchbox kids with her pink box, only to notice it is two to three times as big as theirs…what she has is a typewriter case. Of course all the Anglo kids make fun of her.

The magical realism of the surgeon who makes replacement organs out of paper was original, and intriguing.

A key emotional theme is the shame felt by the daughter and also by the father, whose incontinence has driven the mother away. I think all immigrants feel some type of shame, when trying to fit in to a new culture. Every tribe has a snobbish way of thinking that things “should” be done a certain way, even if that way is clearly nonsensical.

If I had read this book in graduate school, the non-text additions would probably have excited me. But just to come home from work and crack open a book and have to work so hard to understand the story (what’s under those black dots and what bits of the story am I missing?) not so much.

Two mattresses stuffed with hay and mint leaves.

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