Prof. Steven Alvarez
English 363: Experimental Hispanic Literatures
14 December, 2011
Multidimensional Character: The Functionality of Pragmatic Signals and Homodiegetic Narration in Salvador Plascencia’s, People of Paper and Edgardo Vega Yunqué’s, The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle.
Introduction: Approach to Foreignness
Latin American literature has become increasingly popular during the past centuries, and by becoming published, these authors prove that it’s not out of the norm to see nonnative books on the bookshelves of widely known stores. But what of those writers that attain success and have to endure the critiques of those that cannot understand their writing? Lois Parkinson Zamora examines just that in her article, “Interartistic Approaches to Contemporary Latin American Literature” which proposes that “the very notion of analysis (not to mention the notion of literary criticism) is grounded in Western rationalism”(Zamora, “Interartistic Approaches to Contemporary Latin American Literature”). As a result, Zamora’s argument is that Latin American literature becomes analyzed and criticized because of its “foreignness”, in a Western way, and I use the term foreign because the literature comes from a place far too disconnected for the reader to understand, since the difference between traditions and beliefs come into play, essentially, because the text is written by an author who is culturally different. And in stating that, can a reader completely understand the texts he or she is reading if the material is unfamiliar? Or can a reader fundamentally capture the essence of creativity, if the art form appears too unrelated? Consequently, an author becomes, to some extent, conscious of its audience and will try to incorporate himself within the texts in order to make his/her creative work more identifiable.
Both Edgardo Vega Yunqué’s novel, The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle, which I will call Omaha Bigelow for short in this article, and Salvador Plascencia’s People of Paper are written by Latin American authors, both novels rigorously different but at the same time use similar techniques that engage the reader and make the reader question the format and meaning of the novel. This provides Zamora’s argument of critiquing within the lines of our own knowledge and the struggle of determining the writers meaning with an answer since we are presented with ways to read and comprehend genres that can appear not to make sense.
These techniques mentioned above can be readily understood by referring to Manfred Jahn’s Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative where Jahn discusses ways in which to read and techniques used in every form of creative art, especially literature. These applications to narrative which Jahn provides for literature, analyze and resolve elements that are found within text, such appliances as those that compose a narrator’s voice and actions, as well as the awareness of the author to feel and predict the feelings and thoughts of the individual reading the text.
In this article, I will prove that pragmatic signals and homodiegetic narration can at times intertwine and bind the character’s and the author’s feelings. Manfred Jahn states that,
Pragmatic signals [are] expressions that signal the narrator’s awareness of an audience and the degree of his/her orientation towards it. Verbal storytelling, like speaking in general, takes place in a communicative setting comprising a speaker and an audience. (Jahn N1.4)
In other words, the author knows that his book has an intended audience and that since he is aware of that audience, reading becomes almost like storytelling since the author will become imitated through the format and style of the speaker or through the modes in which the author portrays his/her characters. This becomes important because reading literature turns into a one-sided conversation where the author has to predict and answer questions, or even implant questions within the mind of that audience, at any given moment, and this is done so the reader can capture the obscure ideas of the narrative. Along with the definition to pragmatic signals, Jahn’s definition to homodiegetic narration is this,
In a homodiegetic narrative, the story is told by a (homodiegetic) narrator who is also one of story’s acting characters. The prefix ‘homo-‘ points to the fact that the individual who acts as a narrator is also a character on the level of action. (Jahn N1.10)
This is to say, that when a homodiegetic narrator exists, he is not solely the person who gives an account of the story being told, instead this narrator plays a part in the scheme of the whole book. This narrator becomes more that the person who relays what is happening during certain points in the story; instead, this narrator promotes purpose to itself and other character and is not just a voice of continuity.
This video shows the intertwinement of pragmatic signals and homodiegetic narration. This is seen because the man filming is narrating his movements and this narration is influencing his actions, this can be seen when “Jaren” goes into the men’s room and says “No. No. Jaren suddenly remembered that his life is being video tapped. He cannot go to the bathroom at all.” This change in pronouns, from “I” to “Jaren”, from the beginning of the video to the visit to the men’s room is significant because it shows his awareness of audience and awareness of his role as a character in a video.
Pragmatic Signals and Homodiegetic Narration within Plascencia’s People of Paper
Salvador Plascencia, a genius at confusing and intriguing his audience, created a magical, and at the same time, realistic view of the world in his novel The People of Paper. Plascencia, many have criticized, uses too much art and runs away from a well written story and theme by putting artwork in his book by devoting columns or rotated rectangles of texts for his characters, and even bold, black spots of ink in his story to perplex the reader. Instead, I believe all these delightful differences from normal, boring, left to right lines, creates a numinous way of reading literature. I found that Plascencia’s novel had many delightful complexities, starting with his “narrator” Saturn. I call Saturn a narrator because in the beginning of the novel he introduces the actions of such characters as Federico De La Fe, Little Merced, The Mechanic, and other minor characters. In the beginning, Saturn also reveals the story of De La Fe’s bed wetting problem and the story of De La Fe’s wife leaving him. What is interesting about Plascencia’s writing format of Saturn’s telling of events is that he gives Saturn a column just like all the other characters in the novel, and it isn’t until De La Fe announced his war against Saturn, that I understood that Saturn was more than just a narrator, he was also a character.
Saturn was aligned directly over Federico de la Fe, following him wherever he went, budging a half a space centimeter for every five hundred land miles de la Fe and Little Merced traveled. But once Federico de la Fe retreated into the lead shell, safely hiding from view and refusing to reemerge until the weight from the air was lifted, Saturn withdrew into his orbit and faded into the blur of the chalky galaxy (Plascencia 30).
Interestingly, unlike all the columns provided for the other characters, which use personal pronouns, such as “I,” “We,” and “Our”, Saturn’s character appears as the only character that does not have any individual awareness since we only know him as “Saturn” instead of referencing himself as “I”. This becomes significant since he is both character and a homodiegetic narrator, since there is action being performed by Saturn, and because he recounts de la Fe’s action and thoughts. It is not until later that the audience figures out exactly how resourceful Saturn is in portraying the actual author, Plascencia. Plascencia’s minute forms of describing Saturn’s movement, compared to De la Fe’s and Little Merced’s movements, become easily surpassed and insignificant, but when Plascencia offers these small varieties of action they are considerably important. For example, Plascencia states, “[Saturn] budging a half a space centimeter for every five hundred land miles de la Fe and Little Merced traveled” (Plascencia, 30) becomes important because it references the grandiosity of Saturn since de la Fe and Merced have to travel extensive “land miles” just so Saturn can shift half a centimeter in “space.” What could Plascencia possibly mean by revealing both Space and Land differences? Of course, Saturn is a planet and orbits in space, but, Plascencia is a man of fascination and I felt that those subtle differences only added to the magnitude of Saturn’s role as a director of the actions made by others.
There are instances in the novel where Plascencia describes how the other characters try to deceive, or rather, hide from Saturn,
Federico de la Fe looked at me and said, “Pelon, once you’re out there don’t talk or think about anything you’ve heard or seen in here. […] “After you’re done, come back here.” // That’s what he said, [said Pelon] but I can’t think about that anymore. No, Pelon. Think about the brown dirt, the black ashes that float in the sky and the land in the pit // flowers, flowers, El Monte Flores Gang, no, don’t think about that, think about the brown dirt, the black ashes that float in the sky and the land in the pit […] (Plascencia 91)
This minor character, Pelon, was instructed by de la Fe to block any thoughts concerning the plans to overtake Saturn in a war. Pelon’s thoughts become muddled since he needs to prove to Saturn that he can block him. This appears bizarre given that from what we have read, Saturn is just a character that reports what appears to be happening at any given time but does he stay as just that? Incidentally, Plascencia answers this question when he states what Saturn sees the others doing and thinking,
They thought of nothing but flowers and frogs. And the times when they strayed, they quickly returned to dreams of carnations and dirt, or they ran into their lead houses and lowered the door. And when they were stranded deep in the fields, their feet steeped in mud, they bit their tongues until their minds went to bursts of pain and blood, scrambling thoughts into indecipherable throbs. But there is more to El Monte than Federico de la Fe and EMF. Not all is about gangs and a sad man who wets his bed. There is a time and space for everything, to observe thousands of tragedies of a single growing season (Plascencia 92).
This becomes significant because we get to see a glimpse of Plascencia’s awareness to his audience when he states that there is a time and space for everything. This appears as a pragmatic signal seeing as how Plascencia needs to explain to his readers that even though Saturn cannot, at this point in time within the story, narrate the thoughts of the characters, it is only an impediment and will serve as a way to describe the tragedies of a growing season and, ultimately the tragedies of a war lost against a force that knows it all: Saturn.
By the end of the book, Plascencia, so inconspicuously, delivers Saturn’s truth by declaring,
Once the first support was down the others were easily tipped, all the columns falling, giving Saturn full control of the story. // And while Saturn thought about all these things, preoccupied with a future that would never be, no matter his strength, Little Merced helped Federico de la Fe button his Pendleton shirt and pack his bag. // They walked south and off of the page, leaving no footprints that Saturn could track. There would be no sequel to the sadness (Plascencia 242, 245).
This signifies the power Saturn had over the thoughts and actions of the characters, ultimately, because Plascencia is Saturn; this becomes evident when Plascencia affirms that Saturn has full control of the story, as a result, the “columns”, which are presented as the columns the characters utilize to have power within the story, conclusively collapse. Pragmatic signals and homodiegetic narration also become palpable in the story since Plascencia enounces that after Little Merced and Federico de la Fe leave, no sequel could ever be written because Saturn, who is actually Plascencia, has no way of knowing what has become of those characters.
This video is interesting because the presenter, Joe Sabia, is storytelling on storytelling. This is appealing because Sabia, like most storytellers need to capture their audience’s attention, yes, he is using technology, but the history of storytelling he presents is attention-grabbing and it also ties into Jahn’s pragmatic signals where he says that the narrator seems aware of his audience. Sabia is a great example of this, because even though it is not literature, he motivates his audience and even gets reactions out of the crowd (the applause, laughter, and agreement) which is what authors do in either books or storytelling.
Pragmatic Signals and Homodiegetic Narration within In Vega Yunqué’s Omaha Bigelow
Distinct from Salvador Plascencia’s People of Paper, Edgardo Vega Yunqué’s Omaha Bigelow is presented, at first, like a young adult contemporary novel. With all the accompaniments of love, betrayal, sex, drugs and alcohol abuse, Vega Yunqué, I believe, catches the attention of a particular audience: The teen through adult age group. The novel becomes more than a story about young romance, but it does not appear this way until further in the story, and up until that point, Vega Yunqué uses some clever methods to intrigue his audience. Methods such as pragmatic signals, which again, mean signals that the author has some awareness of his audience, which appear when Vega Yunqué states,
Oh, a little note before going on. Okay so you’re wondering why is this guy making fun of Polish people. I have to tell you something, sotto voce and all that, because we don’t want Puerto Ricans to hear this, but in my opinion Puerto Ricans are the Poles of Latin America. Everyone makes fun of us. I started using Edgardo Vega Yunqué again because too many Ed Vega’s were turning up: a poet, an astronomer, a Hollywood designer, a choreographer who died and scared the hell out of my friends because they thought it was me (Vega Yunqué 84)
Brilliantly executed, Vega Yunqué becomes a master at using pragmatic signals within his novel. What’s most entertaining is that Vega Yunqué manages to continue narrating with the lingo in which most of his characters speak, thus, when these pragmatic signals appear, it can at times be difficult to know whether it’s Vega Yunqué speaking or one of the characters. For example, in the quotation stated above, the audience knows Vega Yunqué has added himself to the discourse because he makes a point of stopping the continuity of the novel in order to clarify a point noted above, where he directly tells the audience that he knows that we, the readers, are wondering why he could be making fun of Polish people. Magically, as if he is storytelling in front of us, he states that he will tell us the reason “sotto voce and all”, so his audience imagines him relaying this information quietly so the other Puerto Ricans won’t hear. He also goes on to say that the reason why he started using the longer version of his name again was because “Ed Vega” was too popular, this minute piece of information can become confusing because we are not sure if at this point Edgardo Vega Yunqué is turning into a homodiegetic narrator, or in other words, is becoming a character in the narrative.
However, Vega Yunqué has not added any movement toward the actual story yet, which means that Vega Yunqué cannot be a homodiegetic narrator until he promotes some sort of action within the text. This happens, however, in the next action sequence where he speaks to Maruquita over the phone,
“Vega?” “Yes?” “It’s Jennifer Gómez.” “J-Go!” “Never mind all that J-Go hype nonsense. Don’t try to get me out of character.” “Okay, Maruquita. How’s it going? How’s your brother’s play?” “Going? You’re asking me how it’s going? What kind of question is that? Why did you put me in this thing with this gringo idiot? I’m gonna call my agent and tell him that I want out. And never mind about my brother. Call him if you wanna know about his play.” “I’m sorry, honey.” “Don’t honey me, Vega.” “Sorry. What’s the problem?” “This idiot, Omagaw Boogaloo, is pissing me off big time.” “Omaha Bigelow.” “Whatever,” Maruquita shot back. “This doofus doesn’t want to explain about his sorry-ass dick, and the people are getting pissed. He says they’re not gonna understand him. Where the fuck do you get these people? Vega, will you tell him that this is a friggin book?” (Vega Yunqué 89-90)
The engineering of this communication sequence becomes moving as a result of Vega Yunqué’s full incorporation of himself as a writer and character because he has a conversation with one of the protagonist. It also embodies Jahn’s terms for pragmatic signals and homodiegetic narration because Vega Yunqué establishes a conversation to clarify the language dilemma that Bigelow believes he will face since he does not know English, as well as establishing himself as a character so Maruquita communicates feels as if she can communicate her distress to Vega Yunqué so he can fix Omaha’s lack of confidence with the language situation. Maruquita also makes it clear to the audience that she knows that she is an acting character in Vega Yunqué’s novel since she wants him to tell Omaha that the actions are happening since they appear in a book.
Vega Yunqué also becomes quite good at critiquing other forms of literature that he believes only serve as entertainment, as well as offering an explanation to the way in which he writes,
We’ve already taken a swipe at poor, defenseless Harry Potte, which J.K. Rowling likely couldn’t care less about, since on America Online’s Authors Lounge it has been proclaimed that she will likely be the fisrt billionaire author.// Of course there are still fine literary novels written by a few writers, and they’re published, but they’re not widely read. Not because these novels are linguistically difficult, but because while they may entertain, they also challenge the reader to look at his soul. So, don’t blame me, a Puerto Rican, for the ills of the art form, because I choose to write in this manner. You want to blame me, anyway? Okay, blame me. (Vega Yunqué 167)
This, I feel becomes the basis of his book where he presents one idea, the love and betrayal story of Omaha Bigelow, but then also discusses major problems, like the way in which Puerto Ricans were dumped into tenements, how they were discriminated against, how our generations can only see literature as a form of entertainment and not as a form of learning, and along with that idea, the fact appears to be that we categorize good literature and bad literature by who writes it and the themes we believe we’ll encounter in the book, and that is why Vega Yunqué wants his readers not to blame him for his way of writing, since, technically, he is forced to write within this social Puerto Rican standard.
I liked this video, and felt it tied into the idea of pragmatic signals because the speaker, Krumbine, focuses his attention to the camera, which is his audience, and because he announces himself in the third person and then uses personal pronouns.
Differences and similarities between The People of Paper and Omaha Bigelow:
Both The People of Paper and Omaha Bigelow have many similarities and contrasts. Some of the contrasts become more pronounced because of writing and format styles, and the use of language. While Plascencia’s language appears proper, he becomes very artistic when it comes to the formatting of the actual ink on the page. Meanwhile Vega Yunqué’s language becomes artistic, because of his use of Spanglish and colorful language to depict his story; his sentence structures are very plain in comparison. Both these author become alike, though, by using pragmatic signals in order to demonstrate awareness to their audience and homodiegetic narration, in order to show that narrators can have a piece of the action too.
In conclusion, Latin American literature has become increasingly popular and with authors such as Plascencia and Vega Yunqué showing that they too can write experimentally and use different techniques to impress the readers, their main plot lines do not fall far behind. Especially when we come across characters who are made of paper and have battles against their creator or when we encounter characters that have conversations with their architect and actually have an impact on their ink destiny and even provide data on social issues impacting our society now makes a distinction between books that only provide amusement and are written as the same story over and over again. Thus, Zamamora was correct in stating that it becomes difficult to read and analyze texts that we cannot understand just because we only have one way of viewing them, which she states is the Western way of critiquing and analyzing, but when we take the chance to view these texts as art, where art is a universal beauty, then we see the creativeness and capacity to see outside the four walls that we place on our minds and view these works of creativity as masterpieces of techniques and finished blueprints that contain multiple formulas and equations.