Salvador Plascencia is not into authenticity. Wearing a Smiths T-shirt and heavy black-framed glasses, he hunches over his coffee cup and explains. “I’m not interested in realism or documentary or reportage,” he says, and anxiously swats the words away.
It’s a relief: The wide boulevards that stretch outside the window are real enough. We’re eating at Flo’s, a brick-walled El Monte coffee shop not far from the house where Plascencia’s parents still live. El Monte is pretty bleak, but not in any picturesquely gritty, inner-city way. It’s just barren, stuck hard with the edge-city doldrums — yawning stucco plains of tire shops, Toyota dealers, mini-malls and Taco Bells. And except for a few smog-crusted oleanders on the exit ramp from the 10, and occasional bougainvilleas or rose bushes fenced off in people’s yards, there are hardly any flowers.
The El Monte of Plascencia’s imagination suffers no such scarcity. His novel, The People of Paper, is set in “a town of furrows and flowers,” part rancho, part suburb, part Swiftian fantasyland. The social scene is dominated by the El Monte Flores, or EMF, “the first street gang born of carnations.” They work in the fields picking flowers, hustling profits out of cockfights and sales of goat milk on the side. They pack carnation knives and are fighting a war against Saturn — but we’ll get to that.
El Monte really was a farm town once, and Flores, delightfully enough, is the real name of the local gang. “I don’t know why they’re called the flowers,” smiles Plascencia, who now lives in Whittier. He’s 28 and far from tall — Napoleon plays a small but symbolic role in the novel. Plascencia’s hair is almost red, and his light eyes leap with nervous energy. “I don’t think there were flowers in El Monte,” he says. “I know there were berries and walnut trees, but I never heard about flowers.”
A quick web search reveals that part of El Monte was once farmed for seeds, and the fields were in fact filled with blossoms. That section of town was dubbed Flores, but no matter. “My history is murky,” Plascencia says, “and I wanted it to be that way so I could just be free to do whatever I wanted. I was scared that if I did find out, I’d be constrained.”
Constrained The People of Paperis not. Just flipping it open makes it obvious that this is not your average magical-realist metafictional epic set in the south San Gabriel Valley. Already in the first chapter, every page-spread is split into three columns: one narrated by a voice we know only as Saturn (planet? god? mortal?), another by a precocious, lime-addicted girl named Little Merced, the third by a revolving cast including a sainted lucha librewrestler, a lotería barker, a retarded infant prophet and a mechanic who builds robotic turtles. Later in the book, Saturn’s column gets split in two. Toward the end, what fragile order exists breaks down. Text runs sideways up the page. Phrases are crossed out. Words are physically punched out of the paper. Black circles crawl across the page, hiding the text beneath them.
It’s not surprising, given the risk-aversion of the current fiction market, that Plascencia had a hard time finding a publisher. “It got rejected by . . . everybody,” he says with a small laugh. Eventually McSweeney’s published a chapter and, as part of the magazine’s new Rectangulars imprint, released the whole thing in hardcover in June. Plascencia spent most of the early summer on tour, trying to figure out how to read aloud from a book which is in part about the reader’s physical interaction with the printed page.
For all its feverish typographical energy though, The People of Paper is, at its most basic level, a story about heartbreak. Several heartbreaks, really. The first belongs to Little Merced’s father, Federico de la Fe, whose unruly bladder (he wets the bed) drives his wife into the arms of another man, and who escapes the agony of abandonment with self-administered burns, and by leaving his home village of Las Tortugas, Mexico, with his daughter. They make it as far as El Monte, where de la Fe finds work in the flower fields and begins to plot a war against the still-mysterious Saturn, enlisting EMF in his peculiar struggle. De la Fe can’t stand that Saturn is always watching him, always there — somewhere.
Then there’s Froggy, the EMF veterano who becomes de la Fe’s second-in-command. His lover leaves him when he kills her abusive dad, after which she insists that he address her as Subcomandante Sandra. Froggy finds solace with Julieta, who hails from a Mexican village in which everything is literally turning to dust. And then there’s Ramón Barreto, one of many men loved and left by a woman made of paper; they recognize one another in the streets by the paper-cut scars on their mouths, “at times flicking cleft tongues” in silent, mournful greeting.
The guiding heartbreak, though, is hinted at in the dedication (“to Liz, who taught me that we are all of paper”), and finds its way into the text after Smiley, another EMF member, sets out in search of the elusive Saturn. A curandero or faith healer reveals to Smiley that Saturn is none other than Salvador Plascencia — de la Fe’s war is in fact an insurrection against the tyranny of the all-knowing and all-seeing author. (“It is an affront to God’s kindness,” Froggy later protests, “to limit us, to relegate us to strict columns and force us to act in one story and submit to the commands of a dictator.”) The curandero sells Smiley a map, which Smiley follows to the top of the highest peak in the San Gabriels. There he scratches away the sky with his carnation knife and pulls himself up into his creator’s bedroom. He finds Plascencia “asleep, sprawled and naked, laying on his stomach, pillowcases beneath him but the pillows tossed against the wall.” Liz has left him (“for a white boy,” at that), and Smiley resists the urge to do him harm: “There is an etiquette that must be followed, even in war. You cannot kill or steal from a man while he is asleep and heartbroken.”
First novels, convention has it, tend toward thinly veiled autobiography. The author of The People of Paper favors the all-out fun-house hall-of-mirrors approach, but more ordinary autobiographical details do sneak through, complete with ordinary veils. As a small child, the flesh-and-blood Salvador Plascencia lived with his mother outside of Guadalajara on a ranch called La Tortuga until they migrated north to join his father in El Monte. His memory of that period is, he says, “a little murky.”
Plascencia won’t volunteer much about the reality behind the book’s fictionalized breakup, except to moan a little when I bring it up. Names have been tweaked, he says, picking at the scraps of his French toast. Chronologies have been condensed and personalities combined. It happened when he was living in upstate New York, enrolled in an MFA program at Syracuse University. (He’s now at USC, three years into a combined writing and English literature Ph.D. program.) He had already written the first third of the novel when everything collapsed. Heartbreak changes everything. Plascencia didn’t know how to proceed with the book he had been writing and eventually found his solution, he says, in “the idea that the book is falling apart because of [a] girl.”
As convoluted as it may sound in summary, on the page, Plascencia’s solution has a simple elegance. The Liz-break-up plotline and the characters’ rebellion against their creator intertwine, justifying one another and lending the book a painful immediacy. It doesn’t feel tricky, just true. “Metafiction has this weird stigma,” Plascencia says, “like it’s a dirty word somehow. I wanted to make it as fleshy and human as I could, but not high-concept-wise, more like I’m a dumb writer and I don’t know what I’m doing — things are getting out of control.”
The ploy works. The novel seems to pull itself apart. If anything is conveyed with attention to authentic, realist detail in The People of Paper, it’s that sense of all-consuming sorrow. Love dissolves and lovers leave. Towns turn to dust. Wars are lost. Stories disintegrate on the pages that hold them. I ask Plascencia how the real women behind the characters of Liz and one other fictionalized ex-lover reacted to the book.
He smiles sadly. “I think everybody’s okay with it now.”
THE PEOPLE OF PAPER| By Salvador Plascencia | McSweeney’s Books | 245 pages | Hardcover $22
Salvador Plascencia reads fromThe People of Paper at 826LA on Friday, July 22, at 7:30 p.m. The program, “TJ to LA: A Night of McSweeney’s Readings,” also featuresL.A. Weekly writer-editor Joshuah Bearman and contributor Josh Kun, as well as Mexican photographer Yvonne Venegas. RSVP to (310) 305-8418 orrsvp@826LA.com.