The Paper Men

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2197

William Golding’s ninth novel, The Paper Men, was not especially well received on its publication in 1984. To some extent this may have been the result of a kind of critical jealousy. Golding had received the Booker McConnell Prize for Fiction in 1981 for his immediately preceding novel, Rites of Passage (1980). In 1983, he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. After these accolades, the temptation for reviewers to insist that they, at least, were not impressed, that they were not the slaves of popular opinion, that this book was not up to the standard of its predecessors (and so on) must have been considerable. Nevertheless, there is something more deeply and individually irritating in The Paper Men, which may also account for the critical pique it created. It is a comic novel, much of the time, but its comedy is malicious. On several levels at once, it reads as an attack on academics and critics and reviewers of literature, simultaneously parodying and provoking them. It is, again in several ways, a prolonged tease.

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Thus, it is notoriously one of the worst errors a critic can make to confuse a character in a novel with the author. Writing “Jane Austen says,” when really it was Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse, will always be reproved. Such a mistake leaves the critic open immediately to allegations of insensitivity, failure to perceive irony, naïveté, and so on, all of them very damning. All the same, and in full awareness of the risks involved, one has to say that the protagonist and “I-narrator” of The Paper Men, Wilfred Barclay, does look and sound a lot like William Golding. Their names have the same number of letters—a trivial point, but exactly the kind of detail that the academic students of the fictional Barclay would notice: At one point in The Paper Men, Barclay finds himself listening to a paper in which his great persecutor, Professor Rick L. Tucker, has counted all of his relative clauses. The number of letters in a name would be perfectly good evidence to Tucker.

There are other more substantial connections. Golding’s career, it is probably fair to say, was marked by the instant success of his first book, Lord of the Flies (1954), which reached a level of sales and of popularity matched by none of its successors. In the same way, it is clear from what Barclay says about himself that he too was launched by his first book, Coldharbour, which he describes as a “one-off,” adding rather defensively, “But the books that followed hadn’t been bad either.” Barclay believes that no one has appreciated these later books properly, but his recognition that this is so has only a bad effect on him. Sitting in his hotel room, reading imperceptive critical papers about himself, he decides that if no one understands what he is doing, he may as well write economically rather than in strain and anguish. So, he says, “I wrote The Birds of Prey in next to no time, with no more than five per cent of myself” to be sent to his agent simply for profit. Does the fictional novel The Birds of Prey have an analogue in Golding’s works, in the same way that Coldharbour parallels Lord of the Flies? One hopes not. Still, one cannot help remembering that Golding went through a long unproductive spell of some twelve years between publication of The Pyramid (1967) and Darkness Visible (1979). What was the problem? How did he get restarted? Did he decide consciously to operate on a different level? These are all questions that people have asked about Golding. To find a character in Golding asking and answering very much the same questions about himself must be at least suggestive.

This, however, is where the tease comes in. If a review starts to identify Wilfred Barclay with William Golding, the reviewer can hardly avoid the further parallel: between himself and Barclay’s great antagonist, the critic and would-be biographer Professor Rick L. Tucker. Tucker is a blockhead and a figure of farce. On his first appearance in the novel, he is found by Barclay surreptitiously rifling the contents of Barclay’s dustbin, or ash can, for evidence or old letters or scraps of paper. Hearing the noises of disturbance, Barclay’s first thought is that Tucker is a badger—and he is right, in a way, for Tucker’s vocation is precisely to “badger,” to irritate, pester, and hound Barclay until Barclay agrees to make him his “official biographer” (when, of course, Tucker will only badger him even more). Tucker’s university, meanwhile, is the University of Astrakhan, Nebraska, which he refers to jocularly as “Ole Ashcan.” He even has a sweater with the joke knitted into it. So Tucker is from the outset portrayed as a digger of dirt who is prepared to go to almost any lengths for the mostly valueless scraps of information from which he proposes to build a career. On one level, the story of The Paper Men consists of Barclay investigating just how far Tucker is prepared to go. He is certainly ready to steal from dustbins. He also lies cheerfully: The professorship he claims at the start is self-awarded, and later on, at a literary conference, Barclay hears Tucker claiming complete intimacy with him on no ground other than that of the dustbin episode. As matters become more urgent, Tucker sends his wife, Mary Lou, to seduce Barclay into signing a statement of permission; near the end, Barclay makes Tucker get down on his knees and lap wine from a saucer to prove he is Barclay’s dog. There seems to be nothing that the academic will not do to gain status from proximity to the creative artist.

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Nevertheless, the Barclay-Tucker relationship is not completely one-sided. Though Barclay, like Golding, has a low opinion of the academic world (for Golding’s opinion of American universities, see the essay “Gradus ad Parnassum” in The Hot Gates and Other Occasional Pieces, 1965), he is still in a way afraid of it. Critics “make or break” the writer, declares Tucker in chapter 3. Tucker’s opinion is completely unreliable, but a friend of Barclay says rather the same thing more convincingly later, when he talks about the reviews of another late Barclay novel, Horses at the Spring. Barclay knows that this was an insincere and “economical” book, but according to his earlier theory, the critics should not have noticed. They have, though. Barclay can hear their doubts even when they are trying to be complimentary. It seems that, for all the excesses of the Tuckers and the follies of earnest conferences, writers are bound to face a collective judgment in the end, and that judgment on the whole is likely to be correct. Maybe, then, Barclay and Tucker ought to cooperate. They need each other. This is the insidious thought that haunts Barclay throughout the book and makes his baiting of Tucker seem increasingly neurotic, unmotivated. One may say that if the novel is on one level a prolonged taunting of Tucker, by Barclay, and on another level a long defiance by Golding of an academic world he has come to despise, it is on yet other levels a work of nagging self-doubt, a kind of apology for the artist’s life.

Another literary issue to surface in The Paper Men is that of plagiarism. Shortly after the Nobel award, Golding himself was accused, by Auberon Waugh, of at least unconsciously plagiarizing a little-known novel of the 1920’s, W. L. George’s Children of the Morning (1926), when he wrote Lord of the Flies. Most highly successful writers are accused of plagiarism at one time or another. The accusation is rarely true (and certainly appears baseless in the case of Lord of the Flies), if only because plagiarism on any but the most easily detectable level is so hard to prove: It is not the ideas that count but the similarity in the written versions. Barclay is therefore at one point properly scornful of the academic notion that everything in any book must have come from some other book and that what a critic has to do is identify his author’s “sources.” He must also admit to himself, however, that he did indeed once plagiarize, lifting a good idea from an unpublishable manuscript. A plausible accusation against The Paper Men is that it looks at times like a work of “self-plagiarism,” with Golding (perhaps in a dry spell) lifting ideas from his own earlier books to try to give a kind of gravity, a hint of deep significance, to what would otherwise be mostly broad comedy. The Paper Men in several respects recalls Pincher Martin (1956): Both are self-discoveries by characters seen with increasing criticism and blame. Both end unexpectedly with death (for Martin, the reader discovers, has been drowning all the time, while Barclay at the end realizes that what Tucker is pointing at him is “a gun”—though the last word is never completed). Both have at their center scenes of terrible perception of God. One could, of course, remark that these similarities (and others, with Golding’s other novels) are only to be expected in the work of any individual author and are one of the elements that help to create an oeuvre, but are the scenes in The Paper Men justified, or are they here (as they were not in Pincher Martin) for padding?

It must be admitted that the metaphysical scenes in The Paper Men are hard to integrate with the comedy that surrounds them: There are perhaps three such main scenes, the fall, the stroke, and the stigmata. The first of these might pass muster more readily, if it were not for the ones that follow. What happens in it is that Barclay (having resisted the temptation of Mary Lou) goes for a walk with Tucker along an Alpine path in fog. He leans over a railing, it breaks, and only a prodigious effort by Tucker hauls him back from the mountainside to the path. In one way, this scene remains comic, part of the Barclay-Tucker duel. It gives Tucker a stronger hold on Barclay than if Barclay had taken his wife. Actually, however (as Barclay realizes to his fury years later), Tucker saved him from nothing: What seemed a terrible fall in the fog was no more than a gentle drop to a meadow. Tucker (who had been along the path before) knew all the time that Barclay was in no danger. There is something compelling, however, about the image of the author poised over fog and death and oblivion but hauled back by the critic—especially if one reflects that Barclay and Tucker have previously seemed very much like Christ and Satan in the Wilderness (see Matthew 4:1-11), with Tucker tempting Barclay with fame, and with flesh, looking out over the world from a mountaintop.

The identification of Barclay with Christ becomes obvious when he begins to suffer stigmata, pains in his hands and feet analogous to those of Christ on the Cross. The question remains, is the identification convincing? Barclay is not much like Christ. The persecution he endures from Tucker may be a social nuisance, but it is hardly a crucifixion. Is Barclay not taking himself far too seriously? The answer “yes” is compellingly given when a vicar, in the final chapter, astonishes Barclay by reminding him, “There were three crosses.” In other words, Barclay is suffering the pains, not of Christ but of a thief—and he is a thief, as he has admitted. If the stigmata, like the fall, are a delusion, then, what is one to make of the stroke, precipitated for Barclay by a vision of Christ, and succeeded by his confusion of colpo (the stroke) with culpa (sin)? Barclay thinks that he has been struck by sin, but to the reader’s eye, one has to say that his sins seem trivial, mere mistakes or embarrassments. The turn of the novel from literary comedy to metaphysical depth looks awkward, as if from habit rather than conviction.

There may, admittedly, be deeper patterns in The Paper Men than have been drawn out so far. Golding certainly works with insistent symbolism, from the ambiguity of the badger in the beginning to the scene at the end, when Barclay provokes a brawl with Tucker beneath a statue of Psyche. The reference is to the legend of Psyche lighting a lamp to see the face of her lover Cupid and by that act losing him forever. Psyche, the reader is meant to see, is the critical faculty whose light is death to creation. Still, the symbol may be true, and be understood, without ever becoming convincing. On one level, The Paper Men is an amusing social comedy; on another, it may be a statement about the role and nature of the artist. It is hard to resist the opinion, though, that its main function to William Golding was to present himself, through his character Wilfred Barclay, as a man on the run, a man guarding essential privacy—as he put it in his 1982 collection of essays, A Moving Target.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 110

Adams, Robert M. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX (April 1, 1984), p. 3.

Biles, Jack I., and Robert O. Evans, eds. William Golding: Some Critical Considerations, 1978.

Gray, Paul. Review in Time. CXXIII (April 9, 1984), p. 98.

Library Journal. CIX, March 15, 1984, p. 596.

Lodge, David. Review in The New Republic. CXC (April 16, 1984), pp. 32-35.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 3, 1984, p. 3.

New Statesman. CVII, February 10, 1984, p. 23.

The New Yorker. LX, May 21, 1984, p. 132.

Oldsey, Bernard S., and Stanley Weintraub. The Art of William Golding, 1965.

Prescott, Peter S. Review in Newsweek. CIII (April 30, 1984), p. 77.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, February 24, 1984, p. 127.

Raban, Jonathan. Review in The Atlantic. CCLIII (April, 1984), p. 142.

The Wall Street Journal. CCIII, April 19, 1984, p. 28.

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