By Salvador Plascencia. McSweeney's Books, 245 pp, $31, hardcover.
McSweeney's making magic realism? Mmm! This gorgeous debut by Guadalajara-born Angeleno Salvador Plascencia satisfies sensually and intellectually, the author's lush, untranslated language meshing with innovative, integrated design to tell us a tall tale with teeth, truth, and tact.
The People of Paper unfolds with the story of Antonio (the world's first origami surgeon) making a woman entirely of paper in the church factory where priests once created people, abandoned "after the time of ribs and mud. By papal decree there were to be no more people born of the ground or from the marrow of bones. All would be created from the propulsions and mounts performed under bedsheets-rare exception granted for immaculate conceptions."
When wife Merced leaves over his constant bedwetting, Federico de la Fe moves his daughter Little Merced from Las Tortugas to a suburb of L.A. On the bus she meets Baby Nostradamus and a nameless paper woman going to California because she "had heard that Los Angeles was the last refuge for those who had lost their civilization and were afraid of the rain". Little Merced names her Merced de Papel.
Once in El Monte (named for mountains it didn't have), Federico launches a quixotic campaign against Saturn (at once planet, narrator, and felt presence of the author), "against the invasion that infiltrated their thoughts and overheard even their softest whispers, murmurs meant to touch only one ear, and to be retrieved only by memory or swabs of cotton". He convinces members of El Monte Flores, the local carnation pickers' gang, to join his rebellion.
Many characters are otherwise busy, like Apolonio, the scientific Santeriíƒ ¡ healer who discovers the curative powers of Oaxacan songbirds. Or the secret Vatican police who track Santos, the Mexican wrestling hero hiding from his sainthood.
Design supports text brilliantly. Multiple narrators become named columns. In-line illustrations, from a gang tag to the score of a silent hymn, fit in size and style. Black boxes hide text, showing Baby Nostradamus teaching Little Merced how to hide her thoughts from Saturn. And when Saturn talks to his lost love, her new beau's name is physically cut from the page.
Love, loss, and the act of creation-this is the freshest take on these old themes in many years.