The most memorable--and quite possibly the cheesiest--scene in the 1998 Jim Carrey hit The Truman Show comes when Truman Burbank sails his yacht into the wild blue yonder. Granted, it's not the sky, exactly, but the sky-blue back wall of a sound stage--the setting of his unreal real life. At that moment Truman's worst fears and suspicions are validated: He is a character in someone else's story.
Most of Salvador Plascencia's characters in his debut novel The People of Paper are in a similar predicament--they just don't know it. The book ostensibly tells the tale of the war between the planet Saturn and the people of El Monte, led by a Mexican immigrant and soldiered by "the first street gang born of carnations." The reader is inclined to believe that this is the plot's trajectory, but there are ominous signs that things aren't quite right. Mechanical tortoises with binary brains roam the desert; a baby who is telepathic or retarded or both renders advice; Rita Hayworth remains alive, well, and Mexican; and, oh yeah, people made out of paper practice cunnilingus with fleshy counterparts, despite the risk of paper cuts.
Born in 1976 in Guadalajara, Mexico, and raised in El Monte, California, Plascencia earned a degree in fiction from Syracuse University. Somewhere along the line he cultivated a rhizomic imagination and a propensity for innovation. García Márquez and Calvino might come to mind upon reading The People of Paper, but that's not the half of it. Add the beatific mundanity of life in Ben Katchor's comic strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, pile on the dispassionate presentation of fantastic circumstances in Cabeza De Vaca's 16th-century travel diaries, and toss in the Museum of Jurassic Technology's cat-and-mouse game with truth--imagine all that and you're almost there.
Part Two of this three-part book changes everything. That's when Smiley, the only chulo with cajones, solicits advice from the local curandero. It is this medicine man who divines, "Saturn's real name is Salvador Plascencia." Atop a mountain Smiley peels away "at the deteriorating glaze of blue, collapsing a part of the sky and exposing a layer of papier-mâché." Through this hole in the firmament, Smiley enters Saturn's room to find the author asleep.
This brings us face-to-face with the primary concerns of the book: How does one overcome the jagged wounds inflicted by love, and how far can literary innovation take a writer before he succumbs to the narcissistic noodlings of pretension? The Salvador Plascencia that Smiley finds sprawled naked on his bed is bitter and brokenhearted and struggling to finish his first novel. This second narrative revolves around the would-be author, his beloved Liz, and his backup girlfriend Cameroon. It is with these characters that the reader sympathizes.
Salvador is a wreck. He can't bear to utter the name of Liz's new lover. Here the book recalls, strangely enough, Jim Carrey's other success, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which memories can be deleted like so many e-mails. Plascencia employs a similar bit of trickery: Where the lover's name ought to appear on the page, there's a hole in the paper.
Here and elsewhere, Plascencia skillfully uses design to fulfill the promise and possibility of the story. He and his publisher are perfectly matched; Dave Eggers and McSweeney's do nothing, if they don't do design well. In addition to cutouts, The People of Paper deploys blackouts, diagrams, drawings, empty pages, perpendicular text, and fading ink.
Salvador Plascencia the author is always there to give a leg up to Salvador Plascencia the character. And by turning the author's literary bar trick into a personal novel of love and loss, the character returns the favor.