If you’re looking for Salvador Plascencia, you can find him around page 103 of his debut novel, The People of Paper (McSweeney’s, 2005). It’s there that a character named Smiley pulls at a rough spot in the papier-mâché sky and climbs through into the author’s bedroom.
The People of Paper tells the story of the heartbroken Federico de la Fe and his war against the all-seeing power that he blames for life’s indignities, including his wife’s departure. The character takes on the author.
Having quelled his creations’ coup, the flesh-and-blood Plascencia is safe to continue his doctoral studies in USC College’s elite literature and creative writing program.
What brings a young author to the English department’s graduate program?
“Aimee Bender and T.C. Boyle are here, so that was pretty exciting,” said Plascencia. “I love living in L.A., so it helped that USC is close to home. And also, I wanted to be schooled as a literature student in an advanced program.
“It just lined up — the Ph.D. program was perfect for me.”
Plascencia’s mentors at USC also attest to this ideal fit.
“Sal is a writer with a vision. He came to us fully formed,” said T.C. Boyle, renowned novelist and Distinguished Professor of English. “There is a deep and wildly original myth-making in Sal's work — People of Paper is an accomplished and distinctive work of art that creates a new universe for readers, much in the way of García Márquez's Cien Años de Soledad.”
“Sal brings a really fresh, smart sensibility to the program,” said Aimee Bender, English assistant professor and author of last year’s story collection Willful Creatures (Doubleday). “In workshop he often said something no one else had addressed about language. His work rejuvenated everyone with its lively risks and balance of emotion and imagination.”
Plascencia has earned more than his share of noteworthy accolades over the years, including a 1996 Award in Fiction from the National Foundation for Advancement of the Arts and the very first fiction award from the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.
The El Monte, Calif., native did his undergraduate work at Whittier College and received his M.F.A. from Syracuse, where he completed his first novel.
‘I Wrote What I Loved’
Plascencia’s use of bold, self-conscious devices associated with experimental fiction has headlined much of the critical response to The People of Paper.
The novel’s narration quickly and deftly switches perspectives among a large cast of characters. A typical chapter may give voice to the omniscient narrator, a precocious little girl with a taste for limes, her lovelorn father and even the digital brain of a mechanical turtle. On more than one occasion, characters pause to contemplate the reader.
Along the way, two characters develop the ability to mask their thoughts from the author, covering segments of text in black. Elsewhere, when a romantic rival of Plascencia-the-character is mentioned, the name is literally cut out of the page.
Plascencia isn’t necessarily comfortable being tagged as a postmodern maverick, though. He mentions writers such as Kurt Vonnegut and This is Not a Novel author Robert Markson, placing his work into a literary tradition that dates to the middle of the 20th century.
“It was the people I read,” said Plascencia. “At that point, I knew more about experimental literature than traditional literature, so I wrote what I loved — or I tried to mimic what I loved.”
The People of Paper also plays with genre.
The book is rife with elements of myth and fantasy. Much of the book is set in a version of El Monte reimagined to replace its suburban and retail/industrial landscape with fields of flowers and strawberries. The cast includes an origami woman who leaves paper-cuts on her paramour’s bodies and a living saint hiding behind a wrestler’s mask.
A particularly gushing review has described the author as a “savior of magical realism,” a genre associated with Latin American authors wherein the supernatural coexists with the everyday world.
Plascencia, who was born in Mexico, acknowledges this influence, but also credits what he’d learned from his own family’s storytelling.
“It’s not literally the stories,” said Plascencia, “but the modality. The community story where everyone is affected, with elements of witchcraft and religion and how they integrated with everyday life.
“Of course, there were certainly little details that I stole and kind of updated.”
And then there’s the presence of the author as a character in the book, a nod to the ever-popular, and increasingly controversial, memoir.
“It was playing on everybody’s obsession with memoir and reality — what’s real and what’s not,” said Plascencia. “I don’t agree with this idea that reality must align with the written experience. I think ultimately if the word’s good enough, it can withstand the lie.
“We’re not reporters, we’re fiction writers.”
The Heart of the Matter
Of course, all the tricks of style, narrative and typography in The People of Paper could have fallen flat. But the novel displays the essential elements that make literature work: strong storytelling and real heart.
It deals with essential human themes: the loss of love, the search for meaning, and questions of identity and authenticity.
There’s beauty. There’s ugliness, not least in the book’s portrayal of its author in the wounded-animal throes of heartbreak. There’s humor. And there’s sadness — strands of it shooting through every character.
“The sadness became a commodity,” said Plascencia. “I was anxious about it, but that anxiety didn’t enter the story itself until one of the later drafts. Once the anxiety was there, it all came together for me. It was my own private anxiety, but I commodified that too.“
After selling out a series of small print runs on highly regarded independent publisher McSweeney’s, The People of Paper will see wider release as a paperback in November via Harvest, an imprint of educational publisher Harcourt.
This fall, Plascencia is on leave from the university to concentrate on his dissertation, a hybrid analytic and creative work. He spends his days burning through books by authors from Boyle to John Fante, examining their treatment of Latino characters.
He’s also fomenting an idea for his next novel, which he may or may not integrate into his USC dissertation.
Plascencia offers a cryptic synopsis: “It’s a book about three newly discovered oceans.”