Welcome to the Weirdathon's Weekly Weird-off! Here your word gladiators will be fighting to the death (did I forget to mention that part?) to determine which weird book is the weirdest. The first battle will feature The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia and The Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe. Each contestant is allowed to rebut their opponent's answer before moving on to their answer. Ding ding ding, let the fight begin!
Sal: The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia is a novel that is in no way easy to categorize. According to Plascencia, the novel is “a war-novel, a memoir, it’s about immigration, it’s a meta-fiction, and it’s a love-story.” The heart of the novel is built around Federico de la Fe and his daughter, Little Merced, who leave Mexico for the United States after Federico’s wife, Merced, leaves him due to his bedwetting. Once in the U.S., Federico bands together with the locals, forming a group called the EMF who wage a war “against Saturn, against sadness, and against omniscient narration.” The novel is written in three sections, each including several chapters. Each chapter enlists the perspectives of a variety of characters, including Saturn, the omniscient narrator. The pages are laid out in columns, and, at one point, words are blacked out or, in certain editions, are cut from the page. The narrator himself makes an appearance as well. Weird in plot, characterization, genre, organization, and style, I cannot think of a book stranger than The People of Paper.
Cass: George C. Wolfe’s 1985 play The Colored Museum uses the absurd, the strange, the abnormal, and, of course, the weird to excoriate African-American stereotypes. The one-act play features 11 scenes or “exhibits,” such as a time warping airplane spaceship, two models who have chosen to live inside the hermetic safety of Ebony magazine, and a young girl who has given birth to a giant egg. The characters regularly break the fourth wall, forcing the audience to be accountable for what they see on stage in the exhibits of the “museum.” The result is affecting, funny, and often disturbing, an experience that stays with you. The Colored Museum’s weirdness is put to great use to confront the audience (or the reader) with the absurdity of racism itself.
WHAT ARE SOME STRANGE THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THE PLOT?
Sal - Answer: The better question might be “what normal things happen in the plot?” because there aren’t many of those and far more of the weird. We have a woman composed of paper, a moment where a character crawls through the ‘sky’ to confront the author, fictional biographical information about Rita Hayworth, and fictional versions of various persons within the life of the author. Not only are the characters weird and quirky, from Little Merced’s love of limes that cause the enamel on her teeth to rub off to the fact that the EMF gang are really just flower pickers, but the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred to the degree that one is never sure just how much is fiction and how much is memoir. The characters give themselves lead sickness (how, I will not say), and there is even a prophetic baby. If I could, I would just present the text of the novel here, but, in the interest of space, I will simply let my answer stand as is.
Cass - Rebuttal: Anyone can make up stories about Rita Hayworth (have you heard that her mother was actually a blue cow named Bessie?), but The Colored Museum features a Josephine Baker-type murdering her philandering boyfriend on stage with a letter opener before telling us about a dream she had where she ran naked through Sammy Davis Jr.’s hair.
Cass - Answer: There is no plot, only a steady stream of exaggerated “types” as characters who express and expose raw truths. We are taken on Celebrity Slaveship, an airplane staffed by the cheerfully numb stewardess Miss Pat, where the audience--playing the part of the slaves on the plane--are made to denounce African drumming and promise, “I will not rebel.” We watch “Cookin’ with Aunt Ethel,” and learn ingredients like “[a]ll kinds of rhythms/lots of feelings and pizzaz” and “rage/till it congeals and turns to jazz” bake up a batch of something most unexpected. We meet two wigs (yes, actual wigs), LaWanda and Janine, who plead their virtues to an unnamed Woman who is trying to decide between them. We even meet little Normal Jean Reynolds and the giant egg she has birthed after being raped by the garbage man and locked in a dark room by her mother. Each exhibit’s mixture of the surreal and the real emphasizes the absurd horror of the truth.
IS THE FORMAT OF THE BOOK WEIRD?
Sal - Rebuttal: Of course, anyone could make up stories about Rita Hayworth. Anyone could make up stories about Sammy Davis’ hair as well. As for cutting her ex-boyfriend’s throat with the letter opener, I hope it offered the answer she was looking for.
I’m not so sure that novels without plot are all that strange, as Naked Lunch featured a very fragmented, non-linear plot to the point that the urban legend was that Burroughs composed it while in a state of heroin withdrawal and, upon completion, threw it up into the air, publishing it however it had landed. And it seemed entirely plausible! While I will give you the fact that wigs are extremely strange, I have seen many wigs do what they like when I take my grandmother to the beauty salon. They certainly seem to have their share of attitude. And while your play certainly seems to hammer on the surreal, mine seems to function in a similar manner through both metafiction and its brand of magical realism.
Sal - Answer: The People of Paper is published in three sections and include a large cast of characters. The sections are typically divided into columns with a header letting you know which character’s point of view is represented. Saturn, the omniscient narrator, is most often given his own left-side page while the other characters have their right-handed side to add their points of view. There is a little bit of overlap sometimes, giving the reader multiple perspective on the same event, and it is both in physical format and in the format of storytelling itself that the format of the book is weird. As the prophetic baby comes to realize his powers, the EMF gang try to hide their thoughts from the omniscient narrator under the leadership of Federico de la Fe, blacking out large sections of text. The novel is, in some ways, a text about the process of the creation of the text itself, which has a long Greek work that I can’t currently recall, never mind pronounce. Finally, one of the more humorous uses of format comes when the author learns that his ex-girlfriend is dating a new guy, and this new beau’s name is, in some editions blacked out, but, in others, is punched out of the page.
Cass - Rebuttal: Well, thankfully, The Colored Museum is not Naked Lunch, which allows it to actually be good. As for The People of Paper, an interest in the writing process may be useful for a writer, but it is not unexpected; a play that is both a play and something else at the same time surpasses expectations.
Cass - Answer: The Colored Museum is a play that does not consider itself to be a play. Instead, it is a live museum, made up not of acts but exhibits. Characters in exhibits revolve offstage through “small panels, doors, revolving walls, and compartments” that have been built into the walls. There is smoke, there are drums, there is “Respect” by Aretha Franklin. The audience is a character, as tied to the fiction and facts depicted as the actors themselves. One meta exhibit, “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” confronts the theatrical legacy of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun, which was the first play written by a black woman to be performed on Broadway. After the Greek tragic character Medea shows up and Willie-Lee-Beau-Willie is shot by the Man, the cast breaks out into a gospel song, asking, “Oh why couldn’t he be born into a show with lots of singing and dancing/[...]into a show where everybody is happy.” The Colored Museum knows history, and it goes to great lengths to ensure the audience/reader is held accountable for that history.
ARE THERE ANY INTERESTING CHARACTERS?
Sal - Rebuttal: Well, to be fair, The People of Paper is about a lot of things...immigration, romance, a father-daughter relationship, and it just so happens that writing is one of those things. Aside from the incredible frustration that a play of this sort must cause for stage managers, I do not know if it is necessarily so much strange as unorthodox. Waiting for Godot is, in its way, self-referential and fairly meta, and there are many novels that, in their way, function as historiographic fiction. Even Shakespeare, writing over 500 years ago, wrote plays that contain plays, satire, history, and plenty of post-modern effects. Even in terms of history, Shakespeare wrote several plays built around historical events, so it is not something that is necessarily very new.
Sal - Answer: The People of Paper has nothing but interesting characters. Part of what makes The People of Paper so memorable is the detail Plascencia employs, and each character has their own kind of quirks or characteristics. As I mentioned before, Plascencia himself appears as something of a caricaturized version. Even he sort of satirizes his own romantic experiences, making himself seem more histrionic, coming to hate Caucasians for his girlfriend’s new taste in men, so even then there is a kind of reflection on race and stereotype. As I also mentioned before, Little Merced’s love of limes, the fortune-telling prophet-baby, the bed-wetting divorcee, but that’s not all there is. The novel also includes a Saint hiding from the Church, living his life as a luchador. The “protagonist,” if there is just one, is Federico de la Fe, and even he is strange in his obsession with Placencia himself, who is, in turn obsessed with the EMF gang and their world. Ultimately, Federico manages to control his bed-wetting by collecting burns on his body, and the story of Federico finds some parallels within Plascencia’s fictionalized account of his own experiences. Needless to say, it’s a real motley crew that the novel includes, and part of why I still remember this novel almost two years later is because of the detail that Plascencia includes in his characters.
Cass - Rebuttal: None of the characters in The Colored Museum wet the bed.
Cass - Answer: If you want interesting characters, look no further. There is Junie,the “Soldier With a Secret,” a ghost who has a ghastly way of “healin’ the hurtin’” of his war buddies. There’s Miss Roj, a drag queen who swears they “corn row the hairs on my legs so that they spell out M.I.S.S. R.O.J.” and whose only defense against the gross indignities they face is to snap and dance. There’s a Man and the Kid he once was: the Man kills the Kid, but the Kid isn’t easily defeated. The characters are memorable for digging so deeply into the psyches of cliche stereotypes and revealing a depth that, in hands less skilled than Wolfe’s, would be unthinkable.
Sal - Rebuttal: You talk about bed-wetting like it’s a bad thing! He was a stressed man. Give him a break. Plascencia confronts his own versions of stereotypes, but I think he does it less-overtly. Also, I prefer not to think about braided leg hair, but that’s just me…
IN ONE NONSPOILER-Y SENTENCE, DESCRIBE A "WHAT THE FUCK" MOMENT
Sal: To speak simply, there are three sections of the novel, and in the third section, due to events within the story, the novel starts completely over, complete with a repetition of the title page.
Cass: “What’s happenin’?”
Sal: Strange characters, strange events, and strange format, The People of Paper is a reading experience like you’ve never had before. You’ve read self-referential plays, plays that break the fourth wall (even Malcolm in the Middle does that!), and plenty of texts that are built around satire and questions of race. Read The People of Paper, and you’ll see that there has never been a text like it, that encompasses so much and in such a unique way. Your honor, I rest my case.
Cass: The Colored Museum is an incomparable experience. The People of Paper sounds like a decently weird book, but The Colored Museum ate weird for breakfast and made art.
Check out the first exhibit, “Git On Board,” on YouTube.
This was a really fierce battle and it was nearly impossible to choose a winner. Despite Cass' spot-on rebuttals and the strangeness on both sides, I think the oddities in the plot and the format of The People of Paper are too hard to refute. Let it be said, though, that The Colored Museum sounds "better." I hadn't heard of either and now I really want to read both. Sal wins the weird e-book bundle this round! Thank you both so much for playing!
Who would you declare winner in this battle of wits and words?