Rarely does a novel succeed in strengthening itself through its own dismantling
The People of Paper
by Salvador Plascencia
McSweeney's, 200 pp., $20Rarely does a novel succeed in strengthening itself through its own dismantling. In this debut, Salvador Plascencia artfully constructs a mythical present, populated by infant prognosticators, mechanical tortoises, disintegrating villages, saints forgoing canonization in favor of lucha libre, and yes, people made of paper. At its center are Federico de la Fe and his daughter, Little Merced, abandoned by their wife and mother. Driven by the father's mounting sorrow, the two make their way from their tiny village to the barrios of Los Angeles, a city one character describes as "the last refuge for those who had lost their civilization and were afraid of rain." The People of Paper is at root a novel of loss, its numerous characters haunted by irretrievable pasts and departed lovers. With language that owes at least a small debt to García Márquez, Plascencia articulates his characters' longing with such acute detail that it is impossible not to speculate how much of their sorrow might be his own. This conjecture doesn't last long before the author exposes the beams of his story and renders the novel self-conscious in a manner reminiscent of Calvino or Pirandello. The book unravels and becomes a battle of competing narratives, messy and chaotic and, somehow, increasingly compelling. It's a novel of tremendous scope and ambition, but it is most remarkable for what it doesn't do. With its fantastical imagery, an ever-growing constellation of characters, and a format akin to a milder House of Leaves, it would be reasonable to fear that The People of Paper might forsake substance in favor of gimmickry. Fortunately, even amid occasionally frustrating formatting and self-indulgent intrusion, Plascencia exhibits creative confidence without being cocksure, never forgetting the emotional underpinnings of his story.