“The Paperhanger,” like many of Gay’s stories, is characterized by spare but eloquent prose; the descriptions of nature and of human beings and their words and actions are sharp and yet evocative. Gay is exceptionally skillful at depicting both the beauty and the menace of the natural world. There is no sentimentality in his appreciation of nature; he is sensitive to the alien, inhuman quality of natural beauty. His descriptions are vivid and realistic yet often carry a hint of impending danger or disaster. This mixture of realism and ominous mystery is characteristic of his technique. The prose is laced with shades of darkness; there are suggestions that the world is hostile to humankind and that evil forces actually walk the earth. However, these are not tales of fantasy or horror but rather realistic stories alive to the mystery and evil, the unpredictable and inexplicable in nature and in human conduct.
The spareness and darkness of Gay’s language and the calm realism of his narrative voice are reflected in the lives of the people in his fictional world. For the most part, each is locked away in the cell of the self, closed to others. Even if these characters seem to long for some sort of intimate human conduct, they remain essentially remote from one another and communicate without revealing any personal truths, without giving up any insights into the inner self. The story is told in an impersonal and dispassionate voice that is appropriate to this world of the cautious, the self-serving, and the damaged.
“The Paperhanger” and other stories by Gay are filled with strangeness and mystery, not because of the bizarre quality of his vision but rather because life and people are endlessly unpredictable and surprising. The reader of these stories comes to expect calamity; there is calamity at the end of this story, but it is a calamity more startling, more disconcerting, and more real than whatever one anticipated. The poetry of the common, everyday disasters of human lives echoes hauntingly through Gay’s fiction.