The Paper Men

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

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.

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,...

(The entire section is 2197 words.)