Disintegration in “People of Paper”

Although I talked a little about disintegration in my other blog post, it caught my eye in our Google document when someone talked about the impermanence of paper and its disintegration into mush, and reminded me that disintegration was one of the most fascinating themes I found running throughout People of Paper. I think it says something truly profound about the way that we relate to other people, romantically, sexually, and socially.

Disintegration is first referenced in Julieta’s hometown of El Derramadero: “First came a landslide, then the collapse of stone fences, followed by the sudden decomposition of barbed wire and steel plows” (42). But the majority of disintegration that happens in the story has to do with paper: specifically, the disintegration of Merced de Papel, who gets involved with a man who is also from El Derramadero. When Merced wets her sharp paper until she’s soft, Ramon discovers that Merced is dissolving into his mouth: “soon he discovered that Merced was prone to the same fragility as the eroding adobe walls and the endangered songbirds,” and “preferred the severe melancholia of Hollywood and its people to the pestilence of decay that Merced de Papel might bring” (75-76). The only reminder he keeps of her in the house is “a glass jar where [he] kept the scraps of construction paper he would sometimes find stuck to his chest or at the foot of the bed” (72). But even that, we discover,  isn’t safe from disintegration: “The jar where he kept the pieces of Merced had busted its lid and was filled with moths and larvae feeding on the scraps…Despite his fear of decay and the precautions he had taken against destruction, Ramon Barreto had kept a plague incubating in his kitchen cupboard” (82). Really, there’s something about Hollywood culture in particular that seems just as prone to disintegration as Merced de Papel and El Derramadero. Film stars come and go, there are hits every few months that catch people’s attention and disappear just as quickly. And celebrity  news is one of the most fickle journalistic markets out there. Perhaps this realization is what makes Ramon regret Merced’s disappearance later.

Merced puts this ability of disintegration into use with other men she gets involved with. She “tore off the scraps where their blood and salt had stained…Merced de Papel never allowed history to accumulate, her skin changing with the news of the world…She peeled away every  mark and scribble her lovers left, rarely saving any of the notes, grocery lists, and small reminders that men had written on her…Merced de Papel remained unmarked by her lovers, but men left with split lips and tongues, cuts that scarred, remaining deep into old age” (164-165). As a result, she “never came to believe in the permanance of love,” because she felt that “it’s something that burns and disappears into ash…love need not burn forever, just long enough for paper to smolder” (167). Not only does the reference to “the news of the world” reinforce the same kind of disintegration that occurs in Hollywood, but Merced’s interpersonal relationships echo the kind of transitory approach to the social that we have discussed in class. She doesn’t allow relationships with men to last beyond a month, and what remains on them is scar tissue. This idea of the social as something that “burns and disappears into ash” closely mimics the social “movement” brought up in class; even the concept of “trending topics” on Twitter is a documentation of how fleeting people’s social relations can be. To apply this to relationships is certainly grim, but there’s no denying that there is a tendency towards one-night stands and casual sex that has only gotten more common and easy to access with the increased application of internet dating. And of course, online, after you’ve hooked up with someone it’s as easy as deleting their e-mail address and never thinking about it again; these are marks and scribbles that are easily removed with the click of a button.

Eventually, when Merced gets into a car accident, she is torn into shreds, and left an account of her life “on the scraps that she shed. She compiled her own book, which she titled in her native Spanish: Los Dolores y Amores de la Gente de Papel” [The Pains and Loves of the People of Paper] (198). She did so to avoid leaving a “legacy in scar tissue,” although that seems a more literal interpretation of what Liz has done to Sal (and, indeed, one of the things she peels off her body is the name “Liz” written over and over). Sal’s relationship with Cami also left a legacy in scar tissue from bee stings, and Federico’s burn collecting is another legacy of pain. In fact, scar tissue is one of the only long-lasting things in the novel.

The other references to disintegration are more literally inclined; when it looks like Saturn is approaching defeat, his fall is “a slow shedding…as the sun colored the horizon pink, more flakes fell throughout El Monte” (218). The sky is falling on El Monte. When Froggy put some in his mouth, “it tasted like communion, a softness that dissolved into nothing,” similar to Ramon’s experience with Merced de Papel (234). Of course, the fact that it’s the sky falling is no coincidence. These blue flakes that covered El Monte are the same blue pulp that form the cover of the book.

As a matter of interest, since no one’s mentioned it in the Google Document yet and its appearances in People of Paper are often linked to disintegration and healing, I looked up the Oaxacan songbird and found a lot of references to Lila Downs, known as the “Oaxacan songbird,” who incorporates traditional native Mesoamerican music into her songs. One of her songs is referenced in a book that also references People of Paper, so I thought perhaps it wasn’t coincidence. Thoughts welcome!

-jocelyn petyak


~ by jocelynpetyak on April 4, 2010.

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