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Post-Postmodern Paper People

I finished Salvador Plascencia’s fascinating first novel, The People of Paper, last night and have been carrying it around in my head all day.

It is almost too much of a cliche to say, but this is a very very McSweeney’s novel:  typographically innovative, vaguely and sometimes not-so-vaguely magical realist, ironic yet also filled with bottomless emo heartache, a sort of inverted metafiction where the flouting of convention is meant not to reveal the artificiality of literary convention as such but to expose the raw nerve of the real (read: bottomless emo heartache) to daylight, a kind of post-postmodern sublimation of Suffering into Wonder.

I am having a dissonant reaction to the book. 

First, the writing is absolutely fantastic:  well-crafted sentence after sentence, totally sustained and focused over 240 pages, though these terrific sentences all in the end are rendered in the same style, beautiful, yes, but cover to cover Plascencia.  I did also enjoy the metafictional conceits:  El Monte’s war against Saturn was pretty amusing at times, a physical rendering on the page of what Alex Woloch has described as “character space.”  I adored Baby Nostradamus, about whom the less said, the better.  See for yourself.

And yet, and yet. 

Narrative threads pop up and disappear without much explanation.  I do not unduly give away any spoilers to say that Merced de Papel, whom given the title of the novel you would expect to be quite central to its “plot,” is done away with rather suddenly and seems overall to amount to an extended joke.  See the paper person accidentally burning herself!, giving paper cuts to men who go down on her!, etc.!  She does not, in my view, rise above the sum of her gag appearances, which is unfortunate.

Whatever my reservations about the book, however, I’ve begun to think about writing a chapter on PoP when I turn my dissertation into a book–in that oh-so-mythical well-nigh-magic-realist future–perhaps in conjunction with Junot Diaz’s Oscar Wao or Sesshu Foster’s Atomic Aztex.

Decisions, decisions.

4 thoughts on “Post-Postmodern Paper People”

  1. I am reader of your site and I am looking forward to Pop Apocalypse. I have a question about post-post modernism. Why is it that books like this, a "magical realist, ironic yet also filled with bottomless emo heartache" isn't criticized as harshly in lit. as it is in film; for example The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou fits the aforementioned bill, ( is this true at all?) but when that came out it was said to be Anderson's worse film for these reasons (ironic heartache, magical realism)- like these things can't/don't make up a character, cinematically. Why does the ironic heartache/magical realism hold up better in books than in movies in regards to critics? Life Aquatic is easily my favorite movie, and I thought the 'magical realism' e.g. the fish, steve zissou killing an entire fleet of pirates, separated it from his other movies and that is why It is considered his worse, among critics.

  2. Hey, William. Glad you're reading the blog and that you're excited about "Pop Apocalypse"! Let me try to answer your question as best as I can, given space and time constraints.

    I see two major differences between what I am calling postirony (or post-postmodernism, as you call it) in film and in literature. One is the size of the market that consumes each; the other is the ease of consumption with each medium. Every Wes Anderson movie gets far more media coverage than even the highest selling McSweeney's Books book (with maybe the exception of those written by Dave Eggers), given the relative amount of attention our culture pays to literature. And then, it's far easier to watch a two-hour film than to read a densely-rendered three-four hundred page literary novel. With more attention from a general audience, with diverse tastes, comes more negative attention, I think.

    I personally really enjoyed the Life Aquatic. It was my favorite of Anderson's films, which I know is an atypical critical judgment. But I have to admit that the Life Aquatic is pretty rarefied stuff, a kind of mainlined version of his aesthetic, and so not for everyone. With a McSweeney's book, the audience tends to be small and self-selecting, which leads more naturally to a higher proportion of positive reviews. This is just speculation on my part; I haven't done any sort of systematic reception history on these works in general.

    Then again, there are plenty of negative reviews of literary postirony. Lee Siegel wrote a scathing review of Dave Eggers' "What is the What" in the New Republic. Melvin Jules Bukiet has written a fairly critical overview of the "Brooklyn" novel, which he says is characterized by "mawkish self-indulgence… a heavy dollop of creamy nostalgia… magic realism… [and] a complacency of faith." James Wood, meanwhile, decries this style as a continuation of a Pynchonian "hysterical realism," a term he coined to describe the fiction of Zadie Smith. And so on.

    I think general attacks of this sort are kind of silly. There are good and bad examples of this style, as with anything else, and good and bad individual works, often by the same author. So it's a mixed bag. I should say that my goal, at least in discussing these writers in my dissertation, isn't to pronounce critical judgments for their own sake but to position the aesthetic of these writers in terms of an evolving literary history and to describe their individual relationships to an ethos of irony, whose collective valuation I argue has been on the decline for a while.

    All of which is hard enough to talk about in any sort of general way.

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