Amidst disillusioned saints hiding in wrestling rings, mothers burnt by glowing halos, and a Baby Nostradamus who sees only blackness, a gang of flower pickers heads off to war, led by a lonely man who cannot help but wet his bed in sadness. Part memoir, part lies, this is a book about the wounds inflicted by first love and sharp objects.Except there's so much more. Instead of The People of Paper, they should have called this The Book of Extended Metaphors, to go along with one of the books between its covers, The Book of Incandescent Light. They should have called it The Book of Heartbreak or The People of Sorrow. They should have equipped it with warning signs and seatbelts to protect those of us naive enough to get caught up in the fairy tale first pages, those of us who ignored for a moment that this is a book for mature adults, people with scars, people who should not expect a book about a childproof world. They might have dropped a few more hints, might have whispered: "This book will lock you in a shed of tears."
They should have said the truth: This book is sublime.
Of course, you might not like it. That is your right. I will admit that I got so caught up in what the book was doing to me that I abandoned many of my analytical facilities and faculties in a fit of enchanted downsizing, that I didn't stop to think about structure or symmetry, that I didn't separate the elements based on visions of Intro to Lit textbooks dancing like sugarplums in my no-longer-New Critical brain. I read the book like a person in the first throes of love, blindly, enraptured, captured, chained, and, in the end, tortured and bereft. This one's for you, Susan: Here is your erotics of art.
Except isn't The People of Paper all about the dangers of orgasms with origami? Remember the story it tells of Merced de Papel, the last of the paper people made by St. Antonio in the days after ribs and mud and before Swedish bioengineering -- Merced de Papel, who traveled to Los Angeles and was loved by many men, creating an ad hoc tribe of people scarred with paper cuts on their most sensitive skins. Remember the story of Liz, who loved Sal, who dreamed a world and wrote a book and couldn't have the book and the world and Liz, and so he created a Saturnalia of spite and loss, of names cut out of pages and dedications taken away.
I don't know of another book where the metafictional games are so necessary to the ultimate emotional effect, where the fireworks explode fantasy and reality to rain down not wonder, but heartache. The experiments of typography do not create any real difficulty for the reader, but instead evoke a visual and sometimes even physical analogue to the narrative, bringing the story beyond words. Watch the colors, for instance. It is no coincidence that dominoes are a passion for so many characters here -- letters combine into words and words combine into sentences like a game of dominoes with twenty-six numbers to place together in infinite possibilities, to stack up in paragraphs and knock down in pages, the black dots of ink on the white tile of paper. Notice, too, how little color is in this world, how much depends upon green lettuce, the green rind and pulp of limes, a green dress. Little drops of poison. Paper cuts, each.
I could go on and on. I could tell you that what might feel like an anarchic concatenation of voices in the book is actually one voice trying to find a way out of grief, I could tell you why I think this is a novel that cleverly dresses up anger and hurt to pretend they are sorrow, I could exhort and proclaim. But instead I will end with two paragraphs among the many I loved:
He folded the letter, stuffed it into an envelope, and affixed postage. Saturn did not know her zip code or apartment number or the city where she had gone. He put her name on the envelope. Below her name he described the types of places where she might be: cities with rivers, streets with breezes, apartments with steps, rooms with canopies.It could be a bill from a voracious reader, that. It could be a cry against a book that, if you have any heart at all, will make you cry.
Still, three weeks later, there was no reply -- just an itemized bill from the Postmaster General requesting reimbursements for maps of cities and waterways, for wind-velocity meters, and for all the man-hours spent climbing steps and peering into strangers' bedrooms.