Mud and Factories in “People of Paper”

Until now, I’ve been trying to avoid doing “close reading” blog posts, because there’s an allure and a novelty to developing new, more ambitious forms of criticism. But so much of the imagery in People of Paper hit me hard that it’s hard for me to write without incorporating at least some of it. The dichotomy of natural/artificial imagery seems, to me, to be central to many of the themes of the novel. It involves class differences, love, and religion: no easy set of tasks to tackle. But I’ve set out to pick out some of the most noticeable appearances of this imagery and introduce some ideas of what might tie them together.

Over and over, “mud” and “factories” are mentioned. In fact, both are introduced in the first paragraph of the book (“after the time of ribs and mud” and “They closed the factory down” on page 11). This mixed language of development and the natural world sets up their interaction as one of the major themes of the novel (after all, not to give away the ending, but the novel itself is a naturalized industrial production). Religious and divine language is also introduced.

This introduction introduces a relationship between natural and artificial as interactive and almost symbiotic – in a way, it shows the way that the natural can be made artificial and that the artificial can produce something natural. However, a different interaction between the natural and artificial worlds is evident in the presence of the mechanical turtles in other chapters – particularly when Federico and Little Merced travel to La Quemadora and meet the mechanic:

“I began dismantling the mechanical tortoises when I found one chewing on the meat of a real sea turtle. The carapace of the tortoise had been pierced by the metal jaws, and aside from a little blood and some fleshy pouches of milk, nothing was left of the animal. It was just an empty shell nestling on three eggs.” (57)

In this passage, the artificial world is actually attacking and overtaking the natural world (as if, say, characters from a book decided to attack their author?) Federico’s ultimate use of the lead shells as defense against the narrator shows that artificial creations, even if originally harmful, can be reappropriated and recycled.

This cyclical nature of the artificial world appears again in Julieta’s story. As the decay begins, first comes “a landslide, then the collapse of stone fences, followed by the sudden decomposition of barbed wire and steel plows” (42). The decomposition begins with the natural and slowly overtakes the artificial. To replace the alloy utensils, her mother begins carving new spoons from “the thick bark of mesquites.” But ultimately, the only thing that can survive the destruction is plastic (45).

This brings to mind the slow decomposition of materials in the hallways in House of Leaves, and the constant references to mud remind me of Holloway’s insistence on gathering samples of the earth and walls. If we are, as some critics, to read House of Leaves as a description of the interaction between traditional and digital modes of literature, perhaps a connection can be made to People of Paper. Plascencia, after all, chose to utilize the traditional “book” medium; Julieta finds nothing appealing about living in a world “made from melted plastic” (45). Froggy, too, finds something disenchanting about such a world; he thinks “because Sandra, like [him], was born in the world of asphalt and cement, she could not possibly know what it was to really love” (69). What draws him to Julieta is this connection, and his bird’s song as they make love overcomes that world, reaching “beyond the ashen boundaries of El Monte…past the skyscrapers and into the hills of Hollywood” (70).

The natural/artificial imagery appear most often in sections about Froggy (with both Julieta and the evolution of El Monte – for example, “instead of flowers, gasoline pumps and lampposts rose from El Monte” [46]) and Rita Hayworth, whose slow transition from a Mexican country girl into a Hollywood star mirrors the devouring of the real turtles by the mechanical tortoise. After undergoing a complete physical transition, by page 47, Margarita’s sections begin to be headed “Rita” instead and her transformation is complete: “She thought there was something lonely about making movies and counting cats. Her plum trees had wilted and died long ago…” (48).

People of Paper introduces the struggle of a world – amidst traditional tropes of religion, love, and class – trying to find a way to reconcile the traditional, natural world and a strange, developing industrial zone. But this approach is very different from Danielewski’s. And ultimately, there is no semblance of resolution, as there is at the end of House of Leaves, hours of deciphering aside. People of Paper‘s experimentation is, for me, much more personal, and much closer a mirror of my uneasiness in this transition No cheap cave scares necessary; Plascencia presents us with a world that is completely unrealistic and yet somehow more like our own.

Source: Plascencia, Salvador. The People of Paper. Harcourt, Inc: Orlando, 2005.

-jocelyn petyak


~ by jocelynpetyak on March 28, 2010.

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