Saturday, March 04, 2006

Joint Review: Books On Paper (#11 & #12)

The People of Paper
by Salvador Plasencia
(McSweeney's, June 2005)

The House of Paper
by Carlos Maria Dominguez
translated by Nick Caistor
illustrations by Peter Sis

So here we have two books, both with paper in the title, both by Latin Americans (or Latino-Americans), published in 2005. Both also happen to be about books. Plasencia's novel is the second McSweeney's publication I've read in less than a month; their bindings are always just so pretty, and I guess after a lot of recent non-fiction reading I was ready for some fiction that was a little more arch and challenging. This one is definitely experimental, both typographically and authorially. Stories are often told in several columns on a page spread, each narrated by or concerned with a different character; the type sometimes ends up running sideways on the page or blocked out by black squares; one word is actually cut out of the page each time it would appear, leaving a small rectangular whole; and at one point the entire book starts over again, with a slightly altered dedication page. None of this is gratuitous, however; it really is in service to the plot, which concerns the fortunes of an interconnected group of Mexican-American farm workers, actresses, herbal healers, mechanics, Catholic priests and clergy, and always men and women busy breaking each others' hearts. The omniscient sections of the story are labeled "Saturn"; when some of the farm workers launch a rebellion against Saturn's invasive observation, the planet turns out to be Sal Plasencia, whose own hang-ups and heartbreaks begin to bleed into the story. This is an odd book, and I did have one or two moments of annoyance at the irksomely cutesy experimentalism that McSweeney's seem unable to entirely avoid. But it's a rich one too, a Mexican melodrama on a postmodern stage. As they live their deeply felt, folk-art colored lives, the characters' rebellion is essentially against authorial authority, and Plasencia's book is about the moral choices of making art, as well as its healing power.

Dominguez' novel is much more straightforward: a single story told in the first person. At a slim 103 pages, it was one that I consumed in its entirety on a single subway ride home. Then I took it back to the store the next day (I had been borrowing it) and bought it, because I wanted to be able to return to Dominguez observations about books and book lovers. The story ultimately concerns a book collector whose books literally take over his life, pushing him into a corner of his house and taking the place of his friends; when a fire destroys his card catalog (and thus any chance of finding a particular book again) he goes mad, and begins using his beloved books as mere bricks to build the house of the title. His story is gradually uncovered by a nameless protagonist, a colleague and lover of a literature professor who was hit by a car while absent-mindedly reading Emily Dickinson; she receives a mortar-covered book in the mail after her death, and our hero sets out to return to sender, only to be drawn into the strange tale of its origin. (The book in question is THE SHADOW-LINE by Joseph Conrad, and the book's allusions make me want to read more Conrad, whom I've always admired.) The illustrations by Peter Sis (a wonderful artist and children's book author, who also recently illustrated Borges' BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS) don't illustrate the plot, but rather symbolic interactions between people and books, and they are so beautifully strange and evocative I wish I could adopt one as my own symbol, or give them away as cards or posters.

Both of these books on paper are about relations between books and people; while Plasencia is concerned primarily with the subject, the author, and the book, Dominguez is focused on the book and its reader. Reading them together made for a wonderfully deepened experience, and sparked meditations on the nature of writers and readers and their common obsession that I will be thinking about for a long time.

I'll end with my favorite passage from THE HOUSE OF PAPER, as the narrator observes the situation upon arriving in Buenos Aires from London. Replace "Buenos Aires" with "New York City" or even "the entirely literary world" and it's a deadly accurate depiction of the frantic place the book industry can be. In my interpretation, reading itself is our calm River Plate, and each beloved book our hydrofoil.

Some friends gave me the volumes they had just published, but said little about them. They talked about whether Piglia or Saer had a strategy to place themselves within the corpus of Argentine literature, if it was a good idea to say you would take part and then not turn up to a roundtable or a book launch, whether you should "aim for" academic critics or newspaper ones, go into hiding, choose small publishing houses that would take great care over your book or be a celebrity for a month with a Spanish publisher, then vanish like a shooting star from the new titles table.

Their literary aspirations amounted to a political campaign, or perhaps more precisely a military strategy to find a way to demolish the walls of anonymity, an insuperable barrier only a privileged few managed to scale. There were brilliant stars in the literary firmament, people who earned a fortune overnight with dreadful books that were promoted by their publishers, in newspaper supplements, through marketing campaigns, literary prizes, ghastly films, and prominent, paid-for positions in bookshop windows
[BN aside: that's what I call abuse of co-op dollars]. They talked of this in bars as if it were a chaotic battlefield a writer had to traverse not during the adventure of writing – although some did start then – but as soon as that was over. The publishers complained of a lack of good books, of the writers of the "horseshit" brought out by the big publishers, and everyone had an indignant demand, a justification for their failure, a desperate ambition. In Buenos Aires, books had become the center of a nightmarish strategic war, talent a question of ubiquity and power.

A week later I took the hydrofoil across the River Plate to the unknown shore. The river was dun-colored and quiet, and as I left Buenos Aires behind I could feel myself recovering a sense of proportion in the expanse of water and broad horizon that made it easier to breathe, to discover some space inside me.