In his debut novel, Salvador Plascencia creates an allegory about the pain of lost love. Narrated by more than a dozen characters, The People of Paper (McSweeney’s, 200 pp.) is so full of grace and originality—especially originality—that for a moment you will believe he is the only author ever to try such a feat. Consider these plot points:
Frederico de la Fe discovers the cure for sadness. When his wife leaves the bed she shared with him to go and live with another, de la Fe learns that he can dull the sadness with fire. At first, he keeps the burns small and hidden under his clothes, but a work shirt can only cover up so much. So Frederico de la Fe takes his daughter, Little Merced, and they move from Mexico to Los Angeles to start a new life.
On the bus to Tijuana, Frederico and Little Merced encounter a drooling baby who can move only his lower lip. “At first I thought that he was brain dead; the doctors explained he was dumb as a turnip,” the baby’s mother says. In truth, he is only meditating: baby Nostradamus knows every secret, including the fate of this book.
Somewhere else, a butcher guts a small boy’s cat. The boy constructs paper organs for his pet, and the cat comes back to life. The boy becomes a paper surgeon. Soon there are entire people made of paper, people who can cut your tongue with just a kiss but who dissolve into pulp during a summer rain.
And over them all rests Saturn, a planet in the sky and the oppressive force that looks down on Frederico and will not let him escape his sadness. Frederico de la Fe hates the way Saturn looks at him, so he gathers together a gang of carnation pickers to rebel against the planet, and thus against the author who exerts autocratic control over their stories.
The book is playful and violent, with characters who can be both tender and cruel on the same page, sometimes within the same paragraph. Plascencia writes of a paper woman who inspires great passion and love from other men, even though she always leaves them cut up and bleeding. He writes of a girl who stings herself with bees because only they will stop her pain. This is not an easily defined novel, but it seems clear that in Plascencia’s world, we are all, in one way or another, people of paper.