North of Tijuana

Daniel Hernandez is a Times staff writer.

It’s hard not to draw comparisons between Salvador Plascencia’s first novel, “The People of Paper,” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s seminal masterpiece, “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Both drolly tell of fantastical, impossible happenings. Both unravel sagas of war, love, longing and death. Both chart one family’s tumultuous search for equilibrium.

But Plascencia’s may not be the book that “saves” magical realism. It also may not be the book that “saves” Chicano literature, although the author’s biography begs for that possibility. Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1976, Plascencia grew up mostly in El Monte, about 12 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. His novel tells the story of Federico de la Fe and his daughter, Merced, who leave the town of Las Tortugas, Mexico, for El Monte, “a city named after the hills it does not have.”

With the help of the local gang, EMF (El Monte Flores), Federico leads his daughter and the city in a war against sadness. Federico’s obsession with fighting sadness starts when he is abandoned by his wife in Mexico (she could no longer tolerate him wetting their bed). Near the edges of this story, a woman made of paper wanders, haunted by her inability to retain lovers because her body causes paper cuts.

Plascencia acknowledges Garcia Marquez as a major influence in his writing, but “The People of Paper” strays from being the “One Hundred Years of Solitude” for turn-of-this-century Southern California when it ventures into the world of Federico’s enemy, sadness. In this surreal realm, sadness is personified by Saturn, a lovesick young man in El Monte who also happens to be named Salvador Plascencia. Plascencia, or Saturn, narrates the story but also battles against its characters. Sound complicated?


Some of the funniest moments of the book start here. The war escalates. And “The People of Paper” gets weirder.

Readers might take this as an attempt to impress the hipster literati devoted to the post-ironic cult of McSweeney’s, Plascencia’s publisher, but “The People of Paper” is impressive on terms anyone can appreciate. Behind all the devices, Plascencia still manages to construct a classic story. The characters who populate it have their own dilemmas, each rendered with a sweeping note of tragedy by Saturn, who’s a sympathetic narrator.

The particulars provide an added treat. Cowardly saints avoid their duties by moonlighting as masked Mexican wrestlers. A decaying Rita Hayworth is harassed constantly by agitated lettuce pickers, who call her a vendida for being ashamed of her past (she was once a dancer in Tijuana’s casinos). Oaxacan songbirds, mechanical tortoises, elote sellers, curanderos, a slobbering baby Nostradamus, a cardinal named Mahony -- they all exist in a land where the only dividing line is one made of white chalk somewhere just north of Tijuana.

As Saturn and the other characters fight their war and, gradually, fight for control of the story, the novel’s real star emerges. It’s the setting. A lot of it is familiar, yet the whole thing feels new and unexpected, giving Southern California and its mythology a borderless treatment that our literary heritage, until now, has seemed to lack. *