Aside from their proximity in age, and the fulsome praise they got for their debut novels, Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra would appear to have little in common as writers.
Plascencia’s “The People of Paper,” which was published in 2005 by McSweeney’s Books, is a fiendishly inventive meta-fiction that has drawn comparisons to the house-of-mirrors stories of John Barth and Italo Calvino, the self-reflexive screenplays of Charlie Kaufman and the gasp-inducing travelogues of the 16th century Spanish explorer Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca.
“Part memoir, part lies,” as one review astutely put it. “A novel like no other,” effused T.C. Boyle, "…firmly grounded and soaring at the same time.”
Jaime-Becerra’s recently published “This Time Tomorrow” (Thomas Dunne: 304 pp., $24.99) orbits in a different aesthetic solar system. It’s the naturalistic, deeply empathetic tale of a forklift driver, Gilbert Gaeta, and his quest to fulfill his modest vision of the American immigrant dream, with his girlfriend, Joyce, and willful 13-year-old daughter Ana in tow.
Threading his lyrical prose (he started out as a poet and has written a book of short stories, “Every Night Is Ladies’ Night”) with the hyper-realistic particulars of daily life, Jaime-Becerra elevates his struggling East L.A. Everyman to heroic heights. If John Cheever or William Trevor had spent their early careers living and typing away in a bungalow in the San Gabriel Valley, absorbing its sensations and getting to know its residents, this might be the result.
Yet despite their pronounced stylistic differences, a common landscape links Plascencia, 33, and Jaime-Becerra, 36.
That landscape is El Monte, once a dusty Spanish colonial crossroads and now a bustling bedroom community about a dozen miles east of downtown Los Angeles. It already boasts at least one famous literary stepson, crime-thriller author James Ellroy, who briefly lived there with his mother in the post- World War II era. Cheech Marin also is a former denizen. Yet another onetime resident, Frank Zappa, immortalized El Monte in a song.
But the El Monte that haunts and graces the fiction of Jaime-Becerra and Plascencia, who both grew up there, is no Hollywood film noir backdrop or comic punch line. It’s a mutating, multilayered city of 120,000 that in certain moods and times of day can feel like a patch of rural Jalisco or Guerrero grafted onto the L.A. megalopolis.
For both novelists, it’s a place with an identity no less incisive than that of trendier SoCal precincts, imbued with what Plascencia calls its own “strange, weird” mythology. How many cities can boast of being the home turf of both an equine ‘60s TV star and the MGM lion? A city that, as Plascencia writes in “People of Paper,” is surrealistically named “for the hills it does not have?”
“Mr. Ed was born in El Monte,” says Plascencia, a Guadalajara, Mexico, native who now lives in Highland Park but still regularly visits family and friends in El Monte. “Gay’s Lion Farm used to be there. There used to be a dance hall…. So I have those strange sort of connections.”
As a writer, he continues, “I always start in some made-up Mexican ranch or in El Monte; that’s where my stories always start.”
For Jaime-Becerra, an assistant professor of creative writing at UC Riverside, El Monte, despite its sprawling development in recent decades, retains a quiet, pastoral charm that he fondly associates with his childhood.
“The area over where my parents are, where I grew up, there are stables and equestrians and charros that sort of ride by on the horse trail every Sunday afternoon,” he says over lunch at a Peck Road taco joint, not far from where he and his wife live. “There’s like this Sunday barbecue, like rodeo/banda-norteño extravaganza, that happens off of Durfee, and people come from all over the place.”
Jaime-Becerra regards his El Monte upbringing as a boon for a fiction writer and “a badge of honor.” And he’s glad to have some company in mapping out the local literary terrain.
“That’s so exciting to know Sal,” he says. “Sal’s family lives like five minutes from here. And Sal came when I did my first reading at Skylight [Books in Los Feliz] two weeks ago. And he was, ‘Hey, man, how’s it going?’ and we’re talking and he’s like, ‘I wore this for you,’ and it was like this El Monte soccer league championship shirt that he had, and he was very proud of that. And I just love that as writers we’re equally invested in place, but we’re approaching it from very different angles.”
In “The People of Paper,” El Monte exists as a tangible physical reality and a metaphysical state. Although grounded in concrete particulars — the smell of flowers, the taste of limed meats, the tattooed initials etched in cholos’ necks — it’s a locale where the fantastic occurs as a matter of course, as it does in Marc Chagall’s Vitebsk or Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo.
Plascencia affirms that García Márquez’s novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” played a pivotal role in his own development as a writer, a vocation he began to hone while studying at Whittier College. Later, he earned a master of fine arts from Syracuse University, where his mentors included George Saunders.
In Plascencia’s own mock-epic, which he says he intended partly as a parody of traditional immigration narratives, gritty social reality jostles with baroque fabulousness. “People of Paper” charts the odyssey of Federico de la Fe and his daughter, Merced, nonplussed transplants from Las Tortugas, Mexico. In the course of the novel, Federico crosses paths with a local gang, El Monte Flores, and leads the city in a quixotic war against human sadness.
The cast of characters includes lettuce pickers, a Roman Catholic cardinal named Mahony, a frazzled Rita Hayworth and a spooky origami seductress whose male conquests recognize each other by the erotic, stigmatic cuts on their tongues. Presiding over all is the novel’s godlike narrator, Saturn, a.k.a. Salvador Plascencia, hovering in the margins of his own book in a maze of weird typographical markings, brooding over a failed love affair of his own.
Asked about his novel’s literary influences, Plascencia ticks off “Pinocchio,” the Book of Genesis, Laurence Sterne’s experimental 18th century novel “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” and the comic books that he devoured as a kid.
“El Monte [had] no bookstores,” he explains, so comic books were “like the accessible narrative.”
“You go to 7-Eleven, you would buy your series. It was dependable. Once a month I could go to Circle K, give my $5 allowance, play $2.50 of video games, and I’d buy my comic book. And I liked this idea of the suspense of it, like you could read it, and then you could pick it up like a month later.”
In person, Plascencia isn’t nearly as saturnine as his fictional avatar. He’s a shy, wry, endlessly self-scrutinizing fellow of quirky charm who peers out at the world from behind thick glasses. Like many immigrant children of his generation, he grew up hearing Spanish at home but speaking English at school. He credits his fumbling childhood grasp of his second language, and his struggles to master it, with helping him discover the inner beauty and mysterious symmetries of words.
Interviews, he confesses, still put him on edge because his tongue inevitably betrays the ideas he’s trying to articulate. On the other hand, he loves writing because it offers the chance to spin poetic truth from the dross of garbled syntax, to extract hidden meaning from the train wreck of convoluted thought.
“That’s the beautiful thing about the page,” he says. “Right now I’m jumbled, I stutter, I speak too fast. My Spanish is beat up. My English, I speak in malapropisms. And yet on the page … I can take this ineptitude and use it to my advantage.”
Plascencia is at work on a second novel in which El Monte will again appear, but not in the sensational way it tends to be depicted in TV newscasts. He and Jaime-Becerra “love El Monte,” Plascencia says, “and in a way [we] are trying to talk about an El Monte that’s not the news copter, watching a cop kick a gangster in the head.”
If the narrative topography of “People” suggests a layering of Google maps with a few missing pixels, the El Monte of “Tomorrow” is more of a traditional Rand McNally urban grid: precise, well-marked, narratively authoritative.
Its author projects an un-showy self-confidence and low-key affability, and the enthusiasm for batting around ideas that one might expect of a creative writing professor at UC Riverside, his undergraduate alma mater.
Jaime-Becerra says he recognizes himself in his UC students, many of them first- and second-generation immigrants. He understands the pressure of being the first in your family to attend college, the obligation that an unmarried Latina woman, such as Joyce in his novel, still might feel to live at home and look after an elderly parent.
Jaime-Becerra remembers that when his father drove him to start his freshman year at UC Riverside in the fall of 1991, he told his son, “Don’t disappoint your mother.” His Mexican American parents grew up in an era when speaking Spanish was discouraged in Southern California schools, and they wanted their children to assimilate, albeit without relinquishing their cultural heritage.
“I was ‘Michael’ instead of ‘Miguel,’ even though my mom calls me Miguel and has from Day 1,” he says. “So I didn’t really identify in terms of race in L.A. Everybody around me, they were either Mexican or Mexican American or Vietnamese. There’s a large Vietnamese population here in El Monte.”
The son of a union meat-cutter and an elementary school clerk, Jaime-Becerra realized while growing up in El Monte that he could hang with low riders and skateboarders, groove to Juan Gabriel and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Ethnic identity plays a role in his fiction, but he doesn’t regard it as something that’s fixed or definitive.
Both in his novel, which is set during the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era, and in his short story collection, Jaime-Becerra says he wanted to create a make-believe “contained universe” that connected with on-the-ground social realities. He intends to keep exploring, and inventing, more such universes — right here in his backyard.
“For me, it’s this wonderfully fluid framework,” Jaime-Becerra says. “I know the streets, I know the businesses, I know to a certain degree some of the people that might live in that area, where I want my character to be. The framework isn’t fixed. And so I can pull from different periods of El Monte, and use what I want to, to meet my fictional needs.”
He encourages his students to write about their own lives and experiences rather than borrow someone else’s, just as he was encouraged by former professors such as Susan Straight, now his UC Riverside colleague. Straight says that Jaime-Becerra writes about El Monte in a way that expresses the liberating possibilities of a city whose identity is still in flux.
“The El Monte that Michael writes about, it’s part of the freedom of the open spaces. I think there’s actually a freedom in his ‘in-between,’ ” she says.
Johnson is a Times staff writer.