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In his 1967 critical essay “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes elevated the role of the reader to be the one who, rather than the author, constructs the meaning of literature, asserting, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (Barthes 148). The People of Paper, Salvador Plascencia’s debut contemporary novel, flouts this claim with its entire premise; though the residents of El Monte become aware of their controlled existence under Saturn, the embodiment of Plascencia himself, and they wage war against the planet’s omniscient narration in pursuit of autonomy, the author-character continually strikes back and squelches the characters off pages.
Yet, Saturn does not always have the power to know what his characters are thinking, and a third-person voice recounts sections under the heading “Saturn.” If Saturn were merely a tyrannical planet distinct from Plascencia, the plot of The People of Paper would not change significantly, but the insertion of the author into the novel adds a metafictional aspect that forces readers to acknowledge the original creator of the story.
The dominance of the author-character throughout the book stands in the way of readers’ freedom to interpret the text without contemplating the author’s possible intentions. Readers cannot choose to ignore Plascencia’s presence, but they do have the ability to understand the story without knowing his biography, creating a dynamic in which the author could be lifeless, yet simultaneously alive in the form of a character.
Saturn’s inability to foresee the members of the gang El Monte Flores’ (EMF’s) methods of resistance contradicts with his all-knowing nature.
Despite Saturn’s alleged dominion over his literary individuals, he is portrayed as a naturally flawed human, and thus portrays the corporeal Plascencia as such. Federico de la Fa becomes a leading member of EMF and succeeds in temporarily finding a way to prevent Saturn from intruding on the residents of El Monte’s thoughts. On the way to Los Angeles from Las Tortugas, Mexico with his young daughter, Little Merced, to seek employment in a “dress factory . . . [in] a world that was built on cement and not mud” (Plascencia 19), Federico de la Fa follows a mechanical tortoise to an old repair shop and discovers the protection of lead tortoise shells. The mechanic of the repair shop describes: “I feared some hovering entity that seemed to know everything about me. In the shelter of the shell I felt free to think, and free of any infringement on my theories” (Plascencia 27). Plascencia never explains why Saturn is unable to infringe on his characters through this substance beyond “lead . . . a metal that not even the most powerful x-ray in the universe could penetrate” (Plascencia 26). Part two of the novel reveals Saturn’s past relationship with Liz, to whom the novel is originally dedicated, and his complex relationship with Cameroon, who eventually flees Saturn for the country of her namesake and dies of bee sting poisoning in Tangier. After the prophetic Baby Nostradamus grows tired of fighting against his vision and telepathically tells Apolonio the curandero that Saturn wins the war, Saturn “thought of her [Liz], of her perfidy, and then of the others throughout the story: Delilah, Merced, Ida” (Plascencia 242). As Saturn pushes the other characters off the page, gaining the power to assume “full control of the story” (Plascencia 242), his reflective nature demonstrates that he loves his characters and only wanted to be loved romantically as their creator.
Plascencia promotes the reader’s sympathy for victims of Saturn to convince readers that the supremacy of the author, although unavoidable in Western reality, is unjust. Both readers and characters assume that Saturn is responsible for the destruction of every material except plastic in El Derramadero, thus portraying Saturn as a colonial oppressor who imposes inorganic homogeneity on the Mexican landscape. Various female characters leave their male partners for new conformist lives with white men, leaving their former lovers to cope with the loss of love and melancholy through self-harm. The heavily detailed theme of mutilation by means of singeing one’s flesh, obtaining paper cuts from intimacy with Merced de Papel, or inflicting bee stings causes readers to get frustrated at the characters who fail to realize that without Saturn, they would not exist, and that if they ended up winning the war, their story would end. Their self-mutilation symbolizes their own self-destruction as they destroy Saturn.
The characters believe that the author’s oppression has spurred them to defend themselves and that they have the ability to agree or disagree with the path the author has decided for them, but in actuality, an author even above Saturn, whose life only exceeds the area of a book world, has planned the entire substance and outcome of their lives. Plascencia presents blacked out portions of text within Baby Nostradamus’ sections, and once Baby Nostradamus teaches Little Merced how to “hide [her]sel[f] without using lead” (Plascencia 160), Little Merced’s powers obscure the text of other members of EMF. The text that would have appeared in place of blacked out sections might have been told in the third-person, since an anonymous third-person narrator not only narrates Saturn’s sections, but also narrates the only unobscured portion of Baby Nostradamus’ text on page 166-168 of The People of Paper. The prevalent Christianity in The People of Paper is evidence that this third-person narrator is the incarnate Plascencia who fundamentally manipulates the characters. Cardinal Mahony’s thoughts demonstrate this possibility: “The eyes of God are always upon us. And we cannot hide from His omniscience. So even if Saturn falls there is still a God above him” (Plascencia 214). Barthes explains how authors, such as Proust who “made of his very life a work for which his own book was the model” by making the narrator someone who “is going to write” (Barthes 144), have blurred the distinction between the writer and their characters, and how surrealism has desacralized the author with stream of consciousness writing. By suggesting his incarnate self, a higher power above his fictitious Saturn persona, operates on the same principles of his self-proclaimed meatless characters, Plascencia goes further than Proust and former surrealists to desacralize the author; Plascencia embodies himself within the text, – which, according to Barthes, ultimately lives on in the reader’s space, – both as an invoked literary God and an authority over his characters, providing the radical humanist message that perhaps the reader is the space in which God’s unity arises.
Characters’ reactions to the limits of their textual existence lead readers, like the characters, to falsely believe that they have no control over the text. As witnesses to Saturn’s creation, readers are subordinate to the characters in terms of contributing meaning to The People of Paper. A third-person narrator brings this hierarchy to the reader’s attention:
Little Merced . . . began to feel her own resentment . . . against those who stared down at the page, against those who followed sentences into her father’s room and into his bed, watching as he pressed matches to his skin, perhaps even laughing and saying to themselves, ‘Get over it, old man—it is only a woman.’ (Plascencia 186)
The anonymous narrator portrays readers as unwanted outsiders interrupting Plascencia’s work in progress. This speculation about The People of Paper’s readers highlights similarities between Saturn’s relationship to his characters and the author’s relationship to his readers. Instances in which characters demonstrate free will and free thinking in the midst of the narrative parallels instances in which readers find their mind wandering and develop their own opinions and responses to the text. Barthes does not specify whether readers alter the author’s original narrative; he merely advocates critics to study the reader, one who “is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted” (Barthes 148). Plascencia is aware that whoever reads The People of Paper will form their own personal relationship with the text, and the author can neither control nor know that they think. One character in The People of Paper has the audacity to appreciate the role of Saturn, and after “sawing through the layers of newspaper and glue” (Plascencia 103) in the sky, he is disappointed to find that the author “did not have the foresight to see that [he] was coming, nor did he care” (Plascencia 103). Both Saturn’s inability to recognize his own creation and the characters’ inability to accurately predict what the readers are thinking demonstrate how Plascencia mocks the idea of an author and reader who perfectly understand each other.
In order to reflect the way society views authors and creative artists on a pedestal, Saturn ultimately had to win over his characters in the end, but the fact that Saturn possesses the same predilection for love and sadness that his characters display challenges the established inferiority of characters in relation to the narrator. By attributing all characters to similar human qualities, Plascencia complicates Barthes’ claim that sanctification of the writer is akin to “arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of a good society” (Barthes 148). Because Saturn is a stand in for the primary author, readers paradoxically focus on the textual Plascencia rather than Plascencia himself. The matter-of-fact tone of storytelling inclines readers to take every surreal feature of a twisted world literally. This phenomenon is meant to cause readers, like the Californians, to feel liable for their subjective thoughts regarding the novel and to idolize a self-effacing author, albeit a fictional one, as opposed to the author who contains a biography, intentions, and ideas independent of the text.
Even though Saturn’s life only spans the novel, Barthes argues that the author’s life is even shorter. The author ceases to exist once the he surrenders his thoughts to “language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins” (Barthes 146), and “the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, [which] is eternally written here and now” (Barthes 145). The reader, however, has the ultimate power to make the characters come to life, and, thus, Plascencia will always be alive in textual form so long as someone is reading The People of Paper. According to Barthes, the characters are only alive in the reader’s mind, – the “destination” (Barthes 148) in which the text’s unity lies. While some characters, such as Cameroon who writes “I’m not of paper. It is not decent, Sal” (Plascencia 226) in a letter to Saturn, acknowledge that their bodies are of meat, two characters, Merced de Papel and Cardinal Mahony, materialize the metaphor of literary characters being made of paper. Although fleshy characters may only live in the reader’s mind, characters made of paper are eternally bound to the text. Of course, readers can imagine both fleshy and pulpy characters, but such are not genuine; while the reader can repeatedly summon personified versions of each character, including Plascencia, only those characters in the world of The People of Paper who are made of paper are alive in their original form. Merced de Papel dies on page 203, and Mahony dies on page 237, but the reader has the power to resurrect them each time they flip back to previous pages of The People of Paper, similar to the way the Plascencia (the incarnate author) resurrects Little Merced from her lime-induced coma.
Connecting The People of Paper to Barthes’ literary theory results in a metafictional wonderland. By explicitly interacting with his characters and self-consciously utilizing the process of writing the novel as an apparatus for the novel itself, Plascencia ostensibly has authority over how readers regard their setting, plot, and characters after words are set on a page. The reader’s free will is an illusion, since no approach to experimental fiction can change what the author has already planned. By asserting the author’s privilege to implant a textual vestige of himself in the reader’s mind, Plascencia defies Barthes’ logic that the author is hypothetically dead once he or she translates ideas into the written form. Yet, the incorporeal nature of the authorial image that forms in the process of reading The People of Paper simultaneously corroborates Barthes’ idea that reading a novel with respect to the incarnate author imposes a restriction on the reader’s ability to interpret the text. Saturn is Plascencia’s textual identity and is paradoxically editing and constructing a novel in the midst of a novel that is already written, but readers do not know how much of The People of Paper is autobiographical or what Plascencia’s magical elements are supposed to represent, if such are even to be considered metaphorically. Even though the author-character wins the war against EMF in the end, The People of Paper is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on pseudointellectual writers who favor what they are saying as opposed to what the reader can understand, urging readers to think about their relationship to the material in their hands rather than the author, who might as well be hiding behind layers of newspaper and glue in the sky.
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