William Golding’s The Paper Men (1983) is smart, bitter, funny, compelling, shocking, and sad. And beautifully written. It evokes the strange humor of Nabokov’s Lolita, the disingenuous narration of Patrick Dennis, the simultaneous distancing and immediacy of Paul Auster.
The paper men of the title are Wilfred Barclay and Rick Tucker, respectively a successful author and his would-be academic biographer. And as Barclay declares midway through this first-person narrative:
Neither of us, critic and author, we knew nothing about people or not enough. We knew about paper, that was all.
Like Frederic Raphael’s Adam Morris in Fame and Fortune, cold observation and clever distillation are all this writer has to confront and absorb the world:
He raised a finger, hushing me. I stopped and hushed. He had more black hairs in his right nostril than the left. He was right-nostrilled.
She had a kind of security—that kind which stems perhaps from getting on very well without some of our less attractive qualities, such as the need for revenge, more success than other people, protection from other people or indifference to them […] I remember ending our time together envying her bitterly. The things you could see that woman had no need of!
There is no empathy, only exploitation:
Then, paper man that I am, I began to think—what a story!
The short novel charts Barclay’s pursuit by and revenge on the plodding, diffident, but determined Tucker. It takes a couple of chapters for it to become clear that it is the relationship between these two men that is going to drive the plot. Barclay casually introduces us to the unprepossessing Tucker in the throes of an elaborate description of “one of those nights” of massive and habitual drunkenness to which Barclay is prone.
It was a black hole in my memory of the previous night […] It was not a large black hole—merely a blotch between the after-dinner drinking and—yes, now it was smaller, the black hole I mean, because on its very brink I remembered getting up yet another bottle, opening it, despite their protests and—doing what? I examined my throat, my mouth, my head, my stomach. It was impossible to believe that I had really made any significant inroads into that (fifth?) bottle. Otherwise my head would be…and my stomach would be…and that black hole would be…
This innocuous evening is fueled not so much by Barclay’s inveterate drinking as by Tucker’s inveterate meddling, as the latter rummages through Barclay’s garbage for scraps of paper the former had discarded in his presence earlier in the day, remnants of Barclay’s colorful past rightfully consigned to the dustbin. The bringing to light of these scraps leads directly to Barclay’s wife leaving him. Which leads directly to Barclay’s decade-plus odyssey that is the bulk of the book.
Most of these years are spent alone, and Golding brilliantly captures the nonlinearity of Barclay’s existence when he has only a bottle for companionship.
I walked backwards and forwards in my sitting-room, waiting for Rick to come. I’d forgotten that Friday wasn’t Saturday and I had to consult my journal to make sure, but the journal itself seemed confused so I had some more pills and knocked myself out again.
I typed a carefully considered document. I put this in the middle of my polished table. It lay on the polish very pleasantly and watching it really made the time pass…
A fellow writer and drinking companion succinctly sums up Barclay’s situation:
You see, you are what biologists used to call exoskeletal. Most people are what they called endoskeletal, have their bones inside. But you, my dear, for some reason known only to God, as they say of anonymous bodies, have spent your life inventing a skeleton on the outside. Like crabs and lobsters. That’s terrible, you see, because the worms get inside and, oh my aunt Jemima, they have the place to themselves.
There are several encounters, planned and unplanned, comic and tragic, with Rick Tucker over the years. And in and around and between these encounters are an earthquake, a stroke, a near-death experience, a descent into madness, and a salvation.
This latter occurs at the end of a series of horrific nightmares stemming from Barclay’s shocking vengeance on Tucker. He dreams of “sunlight everywhere” and of a “harmonious shape”:
Then they made music of the steps. They held hands and moved and the movement was music. I saw they were neither male nor female or perhaps they were both and it was of no importance. What mattered was the music they made. […] There were steps going down, narrow steps to a door with a drum head. We went through. I think that there was a dark, calm sea beyond it, since I have nothing to speak with but with metaphor. Also there were creatures in the sea that sang. For the singing and the song I have no words at all.
The paper man has no power here, no way to touch or explore or explain this:
…singing starts just where words leave off…
Perhaps these are Prufrock’s mermaids. Definitely, they are an admission of the tragic inability of words, of paper, to capture what is fundamentally true or real or important. For Barclay has already confessed to us how his glib bestsellers are hacked out.
The inadequacy of paper notwithstanding, the breathtaking ending shows that he has underestimated his opponent:
But Rick was a paper man. There was no strength in him. I was safe.