People of Paper, by Salvador Plascencia

People of Paper is not like any book I have ever seen. Clearly experimental, the text alone shows that the author wanted to play with form and meaning. I thought it would be hard to read for this reason, but in fact the story engaged my interest immediately and—for the most part—kept it as the plot unrolled. I was afraid that the gimmicks were intended to hide poor writing, but in fact the writing was quite good.

I liked the first part of the book best. It's rare to find an author who handles magical realism as well as Plascencia does, and his formal innovations only added to the fun. The story begins with an origami surgeon, a man who creates organs for transplant and then goes on to create entire people out of nothing but folded paper. All the characters were strange, yet I couldn’t help entering into their interests and cheering for them as they picked flowers and engaged in a war against Saturn. Why? Because he was looking at them.

Mid-way through, I was disappointed at finding out Saturn’s identity; the whole story suddenly seemed rather mundane and just too cute. For example, I had really liked the idea of origami surgery and didn't want it to be a simplistic metaphor. Books that leave room for my own imagination have a stronger impact on me. I also wasn’t much interested in hearing about the author’s personal issues and problems writing the book.

However, Plascencia managed to hold it together enough for me to finish the book. I liked the characters in the town best: Froggy who endured the gang initiation and became its heart, Federico who needed to sit under the shell of a mechanical tortoise in order to think, Baby Nostradamus who could hide his thoughts. I would have liked the book better if Plascencia had stuck with them instead of spelling out his metastory (and metaphors), but perhaps others will enjoy the extra layers.

Ultimately, the book is a cautionary tale about the power of stories. We can all create narratives (whether books or news articles or simply gossip), and we can also be the unwilling subjects of them. The book made me think about the power of the narrator over the subject, his/her power to intrude on other people’s privacy or inflict damage on their lives. Words can mean what we want them to, as Humpty Dumpty told Alice; all that matters is who is to be Master.

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