Nothing is Worse than Pittsburgh: Salvador Plascenzia’s "The People of Paper"

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Nick Hornby, like a lot of us, likes to benefit from other people’s misery. He wrote a wonderful collection of essays a couple of years ago called Songbook, in which he discussed various songs and why they were important to him. When speaking of Ryan Adams, he lamented the fact that Adams’ later, and more popular, work was NOT inspired by pain. Hornby likes the later stuff, but it didn’t come from the same place that Adams’ was, emotionally speaking, when he wrote the album Heartbreaker, which was written just after his longtime girlfriend left him.
“Some people are at their best when they’re miserable” Hornby writes. ” Ryan Adams’s beautiful Heartbreaker album is, I suspect, the product of a great deal of pain, and ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’ is its perfect, still centre, its faint heartbeat, a song so quiet that you don’t want to breathe throughout its duration…On Adams’s next album, Gold, he seems to have cheered up, and though that’s good news for him, it’s bad news for me. His upbeat songs are fine, but they sound a lot like other people’s upbeat songs.”

We like to think this of art. Great art is produced by great pain. Artists must suffer, must be on the brink of chopping off an ear, in order to produce something that will inspire and move people, something unique. Pain, it would seem, is the only, or at least the best, place for great art to come. That’s what Hornby suggests above. That’s what we’ve been taught to think — hurt is the easiest emotion to turn into something beautiful and haunting and enduring.

In a recent essay, Laura Miller discusses “The Van Gogh Question.” The question: What if Prozac had been available during Van Gogh’s time? For many, this necearrily means that Van Gogh wouldn’t have created masterpieces. It’d have been good for him but bad for us. Miller addresses the question by discussing a book by Peter Kramer, Against Depression. Kramer critiques the “West’s propensity for romanticizing depression.” Depression has become so romanticized that we now equate it with “refinement, profundity, insight and intelligence.” Kramer concludes that although many artists have suffered from depression, there in no reason to assume there was a cause and effect relationship.

Sal Plascenzia’s The People of Paper has been described in a variety of ways. Some view it as experimental. Some view it as an attempt at magical realism. Some think of it as meta-fiction. And it is all of those things. More than those things, though, it is a novel that tackles the Van Gogh question. Is pain necessary for the creation of a novel? Plascenzia answers this in a peculiar way. The characters in the novel rebel against him. They decide they don’t want to do what he wants them to do anymore. They build walls made of lead to keep him from penetrating their minds and controlling their actions. They rise up from the paper and fight him. Hence, the book often has the “meta-fiction” label attatched to it. And that isn’t inappropriate. We do get a glimpse into Plascenzia’s mind during the writing process. It is, in very concrete ways, a novel exploring how a novel is written. But most reviews limit it’s meta-fiction-ness to the structure or character-development or the-writer’s-relationship-with-the-novel aspects of the book. The interesting part of the meta-ness to me, though, is Plascenzia’s epiphany half way through the novel — he realizes that the novel has simply become a way for him to express his pain. So although the novel is indeed meta-fiction, the novel seems more meta-creativity. To me, it is less a novel about how a novel is written than a novel about how a writer struggles with a variety of emotions throughout the creative process.

The creative impetus of the first half of the novel is a broken heart. In the novel, a man’s wife leaves him. He doesn’t know why, exactly, but he tells himself it is because he wet the bed every night. In order to deal with the emotional pain, the man begins burning parts of his body everyday. The size and depth of the burns corresponds to the level of his emotional pain each day. A bad day equals deep or multiple burns.

This man moves from his hometown and recruits members of a gang to aid him in a war against Saturn. Saturn, he believes, is trying to destroy him. Goes without saying the man is under obvious emotional duress. But it is beautiful. He takes his pain and does something great. He organizes a group of people into an army, of sorts. He plans attacks against the planet of Saturn. He stops wetting the bed. It’s absurd, and strangely, it’s something to which it isn’t hard to relate. (Or maybe it’s just me.)

But then a change comes over Plascenzia. He tires of writing from heartbreak. When the characters rebel against him, well, it’s wierd. Goes without saying it’s experimental. And, oddly, the characters do seem to develop their personalities through Plascenzia’s little ploy. Characters that seemed interchangeable in the first half — who were all written from the same painful emotion — now become distinct. They seem to represent different emotions. There is still pain in the novel, but it is complemented by joy and anger and confusion and all of the other things that make us people. Characters-rebelling-against-the writer does seem a bit gimmicky, and I’m not a big fan of gimmicks. But this one works. One reason is because Plascenzia is a very good writer, but the other is that the gimmick has a reason. What began as a novel of loss and hurt becomes a novel about what it means to be alive.

“What rights do we have here?” Nick Hornby asks. “Are we entitled to ask other people to be unhappy for our benefit? After all, there are loads of us, and only one of them. And how can you be happy, really, if you are only ordinary in your happiness, but extraordinary in your grief? Is it really worth it? It sounds harsh, I know, but if you are currently romantically involved with someone with a real talent — especially a talent for songwriting — then do us all a favour and dump them. There might be a Heartbreaker — or a Blood On The Tracks or a Layla — in it for all of us.”

Plascenzia’s answer is, okay. Break my heart. It’ll cause pain and I’ll use that pain to be creative. But I’m not a one-tool player. I can be just as creative if you don’t break my heart. Plascenzia’s refusal to rely solely on pain doesn’t diminish his art, it just creates something different. In Miller’s “Van Gogh” essay, she says that artists don’t need to avoid treating their depression out of fear their art will suffer. They may not create the same kind of art, but it wouldn’t necessarily be inferior. It’d just be different. If Van Gogh took Prozac, he might have been equally famous, just different: different subjects, different stories, different needs, different tastes. Plascenzia is different, but it’s my kind of different.

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