This fascinating, strange debut novel tells the story of a man named Federico de la Fe, a Mexican gent who wages a war against the planet Saturn as a way to combat his crushing depression. Except, as it turns out, the planet Saturn isn’t actually the planet Saturn. It’s actually. . . Wait, hold on a sec — I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to explain this.
Abandoned by his wife Merced due to his chronic bed-wetting (we can’t all be winners), Federico discovers by accident the cure for both his sadness and his inappropriate urination: what he calls “burn collecting,” a self-harm technique in which he burns parts of his own body to a sear. Sometimes he does this while hanging out underneath a giant mechanical turtle that speaks only in binary code and seems to . . . Wait, hold on a sec — I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to explain this.
Wanting a change, Federico packs up his young daughter, Little Merced, and moves to California, where he enlists the help of a local gang of flower pickers in a battle against the malevolent influences of Saturn. Only, as we soon discover, “Saturn” is actually Salvador Plascencia, the author of this novel, and he’s only being this evil in the first place because his heart, just like Federico’s, has recently been viciously broken. (For bed-wetting? He doesn’t say. Let’s go with “yes” for fun.)
Meanwhile, as the war rages on — well, it’s sort of a war, and it’s sort of raging on — Little Merced is slowly being lost to a lime addiction. Limes, I said. The fruit. There’s also a Baby Nostradamus, but he doesn’t seem to be all that much help. Additionally, and somewhat more compellingly, there’s a third Merced that is neither Federico’s wife nor his daughter, but instead a lady made entirely out of paper who is plagued, among other tings, by the terrible fact that every time a man has oral sex with her, his mouth ends up bloodied and raw from the paper cuts.
Wait, hold on a sec — I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to explain this. . .
In case I have failed to make this clear, this is a very strange novel. I’m not entirely sure it works, to be honest, but it’s so fascinatingly written it’s hard to put it down even while you’re scratching your head wondering what the hell the author is trying to accomplish. Narrators come and go, sometimes getting whole chapters, sometimes only a few paragraphs in a column next to a series of paragraphs in columns by other characters. Sometimes, those paragraphs are blacked out — if the narrator has successfully managed to hide their thoughts from Saturn, also known as the author, using sheets of lead. Baby Nostradamus seems especially keen on making that work, and then sort of doesn’t seem keen on anything much at all. Babies: what can I say?
At its heart, this is a novel about sadness and love, and the power of words (“paper”) to either mitigate or exacerbate the agony of both those things. I think that’s what it was about, anyway. Think, for example, about the metaphor of paper cutting up the tongue of a man who only wants to bring pleasure to a woman he loves. The sharpness, the bloodying impact of words, or of love itself. Saturn’s girlfriend, Liz, periodically interjects to beg him (the author) not to hurt her with his novel; another character, Smiley, begs Saturn/the author to explain to him his role in the story, only to be disappointed when it turns out the author barely knows he exists.
I don’t exactly know what it all means, and, to be honest, about 3/4ths of the way through, I was kind of over trying to figure it out. And that right there’s the problem, really: this is a fascinating novel full of fascinating things, but ultimately, nothing quite compelling enough to turn it into a real powerhouse in the world of magical realism or metafiction. Which is too bad, because it has some engaging ideas and characters , as well as some truly evocative writing. This kind of “tight concept, loose execution” problem isn’t uncommon in first novels, however, and so I have some hope that whatever Plascencia does next will be similar but better.
Overall, I’m glad I read this book and I recommend it to anyone else who enjoys writing that tries to do something a little different. You may end up scratching your head at the end, but I think the journey will make the ultimate tinge of dissatisfaction worth it.