Discussed in this essay:
The People of Paper, Salvador Plascencia. Mariner Books. 256pp, $14.00.
As preamble, a quote from Borges: “It is plausible that these observations may have been set forth at some time and, perhaps, many times; a discussion of their novelty interests me less than one of their possible truth.”
(To begin with, a pun.)
Metafiction is the twice-told lie. Much of the novel’s aesthetic power rests in its paradoxical nature. The novel posits itself as a vibrant fiction driven by a convincing verisimilitude; it is in blurring the line between reality and fiction that the novel really takes form. Metafiction is simply the logical extension of the novel’s initial goal: a fiction that would be so convincing it would fool us into accepting it as reality.
(“She was made after the time of ribs and mud. By papal decree there were to be no more people born of the ground or from the marrow of bones.” Of all the joyous ideas inspired by Salvador Plascencia’s 2005 novel, The People of Paper, I find none more enjoyable than the suggestive pun in that second sentence. Plascencia’s metaficitonal novel presents us with a world that has shifted from the power of papal decrees to the transformative powers of papel. A world where we are no longer the constructs of a god at play, but of language itself, and, therefore, of our own making. We now live in the time of papel decrees.)
We fall in love with the fictional construct of the lie before we claim that fictional construct as a truth. This is a fundamental aspect of all metaficiton. Malraux: “An old story goes that Cimabue was struck with admiration when he saw the shepherd boy, Giotto, sketching sheep. But, according to the true biographies, it is never the sheep that inspire a Giotto with the love of painting: but, rather, his first sight of the paintings of such a man as Cimabue.” Metaphysicians, whether they were the guise of artist or theologian, always attach more importance to those things they know to be false than the world those fictions represent.
(The “she” referred to in the first line of the novel is a woman of paper, an Eve for our age, Merced de Papel, a creation of the world’s first origami surgeon, Antonio. Like many artists wounded by a loss—in this case, the death of his beloved cat—Antonio turns to paper and its life-giving powers to ease his heartache, a Victor Frankenstein for our age, constructing “thirteen perfect origami organs and ropes of wound capillaries and veins made from tissue paper” in order to raise his beloved cat from the dead. The brutal contingency of life can be conquered through the fluency of paper/papel. Merced de Papel, another of Antonio’s creations, is a minor character in Plascencia’s novel but represents its truth. Merced de Papel, baptized as such by another Merced, a little girl who has been abandoned by the mother whose name she shares ( the Merceds and the losses they represent multiply in the narrative, an homage to the Garcia Marquez model of familial presence and absence) is the simulacrum come to life, because it is life. She says, “After feeling my arms, [Little Merced] said that I was warm and not a soggy role of Sunday news as she had expected.” She is not simply made of paper but of the life that such paper represents. And the wounded tongue—paper cuts— that Merced de Papel’s lover later brandishes after a disastrous attempt at oral sex is terribly real as well: “Ramon Barreto had slit his tongue and lips while trying to taste the inside of Merced de Papel; he left a puddle of blackening red between her thighs.” A better metaphor for the language that wounds the lover and the beloved would be hard to find.)
We are never betrayed by reality. We are only betrayed by the lies that we have constructed around that reality. This is another of metafiction’s truths.
(Plascencia constructs what can only be described as a post-Christian world. The People of Paper is a wasteland littered with Christian iconography and themes, even if such themes have been distorted, or bent to fit the tenets of another form of religiosity: the metafictional narrative. Plascencia gives us a world of author as God; fallen wrestlers are described with the hagiography of saints; grief stricken characters engage in self-flagellation in order to forget lost loves, submitting to physical pains in order to escape emotional ones; tear-stained monks abandon monasteries that are no longer of any use; a paper Eve, with no need for an Adam, walks the Earth. It is not that God is dead; simply that God and his methods have so radically changed so as to no longer seem familiar, or necessary. This is the ultimate form of Freud’s notion of the uncanny, when the very underpinnings of home come apart and seem strange; when reality itself becomes a familiar fiction; when we can glimpse the workings behind the loom that gives rise to the wonderful tapestry of it all.)
Metafiction treats language as the utmost sacred object, but such notions rest on the paradox that there is nothing truly sacred left but fiction. Fiction is the last sacred language act we have. Metafiction seeks to construct sacred books for an age that neither wants nor needs such texts.
(And of Merced’s creation by Antonio, it is important to take into account the very paper that is used to construct her organs, her bones, her being: “Antonio split the spines of books, spilling leaves of Austen and Cervantes, sheets from Leviticus and Judges, all mixing with the pages of The Book of Incadenscent Light. . . . She was the first to be created: cardboard legs, cellophane appendix, and paper breasts. Created not from the rib of man but from paper scraps.” Literature, in its very materiality, is what makes Merced possible, as it is that which makes us possible as well.)
Metafiction is what Nietzsche may very well have been writing about when he stated that he feared that we still believe in God because we have grammar. God is dead, but only in a sense. We might say, God is no longer the communal gossip whispered from ear to ear in social circles. God is now idle chatter, the nonsense we hear in those most private of moments when we are confronted by something like the Self or the World. For our post-Christian, metafictional world, god has become language, or, better yet, a private syntax rather than a communal grammar. It is still that which structures the world, but on a private scale, atomized.1
(Plascencia’s place in the novel is worth examining. The name he gives his god-like persona is particularly compelling: Saturn. He of the saturnine disposition, as much of the novel revolves around the author’s busted relationship with a woman named Liz, a woman who, during the course of the novel, revolts against his one-sided telling of the tale: “I was going to stay quiet, let you write your story, let your history as you see it stand. . . . But this is a novel—it is no longer between just you and me.” Liz pleads not only for her side of the story but for all the stories that Plascencia has represented in his narrative. One of the more memorable characters in the novel, a marginal figure named Smiley, attempts to make contact with his creator in order to ask him about his own peripheral role in the narrative we are reading. Smiley is quickly disappointed when Plascencia does not recognize him. Smiley’s personal god has forsaken him. Saturn as in Goya’s painting, as the Titan who devoured his own children, his own people of paper.)
Joan Didion stated that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. Metaficion posits a slight addendum to such a statement. We tell ourselves lies in order to live. The difference is subtle, but a necessary one, I think. We capture the fiction behind the lie, we may, at first, even be aggravated by such a fact, but we still belong to it, and are grateful it is there.
(“That book is such drivel. No one thinks that way,” she said, and her halo intensified.)
Metafiction does not posit an arrogant form of human exceptionalism. The Word is flesh not because it has fallen from the heavens but rather because it exists in us. Language possesses a materiality and corporeality not frequently considered.
(When Smiley first meets Plascencia he is utterly disappointed in a myriad of ways. Not only does his creator not recognize him as one of his creations, but Plascencia’s corporeal existence lacks any trace of the divine: “But when I came to Saturn he was no longer in control. He did not have the foresight to see that I was coming, nor did he care. He had surrendered the story and his power as narrator. I found him asleep, sprawled and naked, laying on his stomach, pillowcases beneath him but the pillows tossed against the wall.” Our creators are just as faulty and prone to the pangs of love as we all are. And what is worse, they are just as fleshy and tangible as we are.)
Toni Morrison: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” These are the only two human realities we truly know, death and life, and when faced with the abyss of either path we only have language.
(“And to Liz, who taught me that we are all of paper.”)
We are living in a historical moment lifted straight out of a Borges’s essay: “Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of ‘Hamlet’? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.” I would like to amend this a little. Metafiction acts from a center of certainty regarding our own uncertainty as real constructs. We readers and spectators are fictitious, not simply open to such a possibility. Of such notions, there is little doubt of metafiction’s certainty.
(Smiley, much like Merced de Papel, represents the truth of the matter, even if that truth resides on the margins. It is the minor characters that fully represent what Plascencia’s narrative is truly about. When a street gang of El Monte flower pickers, El Monte Flores, the EMF, as led by little Merced’s father, Federico de la Fe (fe, a stuttered feo?) rebel against Saturn/Plascencia in order to gain full autonomy over their stories and lives, Smiley attempts to make peace, rather than war, with his maker. Smiley is the one, perhaps the only one, who realizes the fictitious truth of the matter, and yet does not care. Smiley, as we all do, simply wants to see how the fiction is constructed. The audience exists in the novel as Smiley and as Merced de Papel, for they are closest to us in terms of temperament and semblance.)
There is no anxiety in metafiction regarding the fictitious nature of it all. To learn one is a fiction is a liberating truth, perhaps the final one. All the anxiety that exists in metafiction revolves around the construction of a narrative, and what that narrative will contain. A metafiction never ends with the last sentence, but continues long after as the static of our lives. It is all there, simply listen:
(“There would be no sequel to the sadness.”)
George Fragopoulos lives in New York. He is currently writing his dissertation on modern American poetics.
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