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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

The Paper Men

by
William Golding


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Paper Men



Title: The Paper Men
Author: William Golding
Genre: Novel
Written: 1984
Length: 191 pages
Availability: The Paper Men - US
The Paper Men - UK
The Paper Men - Canada
Les hommes de papier - France
Papier-Männer - Deutschland
Gli uomini di carta - Italia
Los hombres de papel - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a strange but oddly satisfying (and funny) take on (the idea of) literary (auto)biography

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic . 4/1984 Jonathan Raban
Daily Telegraph A- 10/2/1984 Nina Bawden
Financial Times . 4/2/1984 Anthony Curtis
Literary Review . 4/1984 Susan Marling
London Rev. of Books . 1/3/1984 Frank Kermode
Le Monde . 19/9/1986 Bernard Géniès
The NY Times D 26/3/1984 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 1/4/1984 Robert M. Adams
Sunday Telegraph . 5/2/1984 Janice Elliott
Sunday Times . 12/2/1984 Victoria Glendinning
The Times . 9/2/1984 Michael Ratcliffe
TLS . 2/3/1984 Blake Morrison
VQR D Fall/1984 Richard Jones


  Review Consensus:

  Decidedly mixed(-to-negative) reaction, and even those who looked upon it more favorably have their reservations

  From the Reviews:
  • "Judged simply as a work of fiction, it is crude and shrill: a frantic comedy that has the considerable drawback of not being funny. Judged as a sermon, though, it is something else: a bleak and vexed meditation on the relationship between Man and his Creator. (...) The Paper Men, for all its creakiness and flat jokes, does succeed in gesturing, at least, at something profound. It even goes so far as to assert that creakiness and flat jokes are a necessary product -- a symptom, if you like, of the undeniable fact that the book has a merely human author." - Jonathan Raban, The Atlantic

  • "Few British novelists have as wide a range as William Golding. (...) He has also (though I have never seen this remarked upon) a splendid comic gift which in this latest novel is used to often hilarious effect, running the whole gamut of comedy, from irony to farce. (...) If [Barclay] (and Golding) are not entirely successful, the quest is hugely enjoyable." - Nina Bawden, Daily Telegraph

  • "This may not be a "major" Golding novel but in its penetration of a problem common to many writers today it belies the view of the dissenting Nobel judge that Golding is an author of merely local significance." - Anthony Curtis, Financial Times

  • "This invitation to the reader to do some work is almost suspiciously candid, but it has to be accepted. (...) Of course the whole book takes risks, introducing the divine into the meditations of a witty ruined immoral old writer, having to accommodate it to his sense of farce and his egotistic solitude and his coarseness." - Frank Kermode, London Review of Books

  • "Barclay and Tucker are not only poorly defined as individuals, but are also wholly inadequate as symbols. They are indeed no more than paper men. (...) Judging from the tired, petulant tone of Paper Men, Mr. Golding would seem to have more in common with his creation than mere appearance (.....) He, too, seems to have allowed his pessimistic vision of man to curdle his view of the world and to sour his enjoyment of craft. Not only is the mythic power that animates the best of his fiction curiously absent in Paper Men, but the writing also seems unusually sloppy." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "The Paper Men (...) is like all Mr. Golding's earlier novels in being utterly unlike any of them; it is also like them in dealing with the struggle of sacred and profane values. (...) The Paper Men, dominated by two paper personalities who are in reality but one, has perhaps too much the feeling of a paper tragedy to make a fully satisfying fiction." - Robert M. Adams, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The grappling of two possessed minds is a familiar and usually fecund situation for Mr Golding. (...) This time it doesn't work because Barclay engages from time to time our attention but never compassion or awe." - Janice Elliott, Sunday Telegraph

  • "The Paper Men is a story of evasion, and an exercise evasion itself. (...) But really all anyone wants to know about a new novel by William Golding is, yes or no ? Thumbs up or thumbs down ? I can't oblige. New reders should not begin here (.....) The Paper Men is nothing so unequivocal as a bad book; staccato, defiant, it is equivocal to the point of panic." - Victoria Glendinning, Sunday Times

  • "It is hard to tell from The Paper Men what kind of novelist Barclay is meant to be, because The Paper Men is not a very good book." - Michael Ratcliffe, The Times

  • "The Paper Men babbles with anti-academic satire, and indeed with psychobabble (it threatens at moments to become a "dipso-schizo" case history), so that we may miss its allegorical subtext. (...) Pointing to such continuities does not, of course, make The Paper Men a better novel nor explain why Golding's story-telling here should be so lacking in the subtleties and tensions we have come to expect of him. (...) The Paper Men is certain to get a more patient treatment from future explicators than it has from its reviewers." - Blake Morrison, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A) lighthearted but heavy-handed farce (.....) The Paper Men is a short story blown up into a novel, and it is no excuse that Golding has put into it all the exasperation and pleasure he has experienced since 1954 in being taken seriously by academic and professional critics. (...) The Paper Men is a dreadful book, improbable, unfunny, labored. Neither Barclay nor Tucker is in any way believable either as human being or symbol." - Richard Jones, Virginia Quarterly Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Paper Men is narrated by successful English author Wilfred Barclay, and begins when he is in fifties. He's hosting tiresome young American academic, Rick L. Tucker, at his home, and the opening chapter has Barclay waking in the apparently all too usual for him alcohol-induced haze and mulling over just how serious his alcohol-habit had become. He's tempted to "interrogate the bottles" -- to see the physical evidence of just how much was consumed -- and, when he hears the lid on the outside trashcan fall off actually does get out of bed to go check. He's certain a badger is responsible for the noise around the trashcan, and so he gets his gun to blast the bloody animal away.
       When he gets to the scene he finds it isn't a badger rooting through his garbage, but rather his guest, Tucker, whom he catches: "in the act of the unthinkable". The academic is desperate for every last dreg of information about the author, and doesn't shy away from some dumpster-diving. It sets the stage for the nature and depths of their uneasy relationship, which will continue over more than a decade.
       Still just at the start of his career (indeed, at a stage earlier than he actually lets on here), Tucker had already decided to hitch his academic future to Barclay. The academic from the University of Astrakhan, Nebraska sees his only hope of success in becoming the world's leading authority on someone -- and Barclay is the man (and writer) his choice falls on. (The fact that a wealthy fan, the millionaire Halliday, is willing to support the project obviously plays a role too -- as then does the fact that the clock is always ticking, as Halliday's offer is also only good for so long .....) As Tucker comes to remind and flatter Barclay: "You are part of the Great Pageant of English Literature", -- and yet, conveniently, Barclay is still, as it were, up for grabs: no one has set out to write the great 'life-of' yet, and that's the commission Tucker wants. And to make sure that he can beat off any late-coming rivals and can control the field he wants -- desperately -- Barclay to appoint him his official biographer:

     It's important to me, Wilf. Very important. I'd give anything -- anything ! You don't know the competition -- and I have a chance.
       It's Barclay who is narrating this story, so readers know they are dealing not with academic Tucker's life-of, but rather the subject's own chronicle and account. Barclay presents himself as someone who truly does concern himself with the subject at hand, already anointing himself in the opening paragraph: "the indefatigable analyst of my character -- myself, that is". Whether he is to be trusted or relied upon any more than an outside biographer such as Tucker might be remains an open question. Barclay will come to insist: "This isn't a biography", but it is very much a work of a renowned writer dealing (and struggling) with how his life should be, literarily, remembered. What there is of a plot, in terms of actual action, mostly has Barclay alternatingly confronting and fleeing from his would-be biographer: The Paper Men covers over a decade of their odd relationship, and for much of it Barclay is on the run (if admittedly not just from Tucker) -- and Tucker doing his best to be nipping at his heels.
       Tucker repeatedly presents Barclay with a piece of paper he wants him to sign, making Tucker's position as Barclay's biographer official and legally watertight -- and giving him access to the huge piles of papers Barclay keeps in the house of his former wife, Liz (former after that opening scene, as Tucker and his actions precipitate the dissolution of that marriage). Tucker even goes so far as to seem to offer his young bride Mary Lou -- who majored in flower-arranging and bibliography at college -- as a prize, a signing bonus of sorts, to sweeten the deal. Here, as elsewhere, Barclay declines -- Mary Lou does wind up as a prize, but someone else's (though still to do with Tucker's desperate efforts to make Barclay his academic-own) --, and continues to cruelly tease the academic, repeatedly holding out the possibility of going along and then always pulling back. At one point Tucker saves Barclay's life, and Barclay feels something of an obligation towards him ("It seems I owe you my life", he realizes, with something of a shudder) -- only to eventually discover that Tucker's apparent heroics (like so much about Tucker ...) turn out not to be quite what they seemed at the time .....
       Eventually, Barclay suggests he's willing to go along with Tucker's plans -- but very much on his own demanding terms ("I shall oversee the biography word for word"), so that also:
In fact, the biography will be a duet, Rick. We'll show the world what we are -- paper men, you can call us. How about that for a title ?
       The Paper Men does play out as a duet of sorts, but it remains entirely Barclay's work, with Tucker reduced to the role of fool-cum-antagonist -- if also the driver behind much of the action.
       Even early in their peculiar dance, Barclay had realized:
Neither of us, critic and author, we knew nothing about people or not enough. We knew about paper, that was all.
       So also Barclay's account, despite covering so much time and so much travel -- at one point: "I went right round the world. It's probably been done before -- going round the world because you're scared I mean -- but it felt like a first" --, is reduced to this word-account, with little of any actual experiences or much interaction with others in any way captured here. Perhaps the best case Tucker makes for being allowed to take charge of documenting Barclay's life -- made specifically when Barclay suggests biography-in-collaboration, but valid throughout -- is that:
your memory it isn't all it might me. Writers are absent-minded, you know that, Wilf.
       Indeed, Barclay seems to go out of his way to remind readers -- and/or himself ? -- that he is an unreliable narrator. From the first -- with its: "black hole in my memory of the previous night" -- he acknowledges gaps and a lack of recall. He's self-aware enough to realize:
     Middle-age was leaving me and something more advanced was approaching and I didn't much like the look of it. Memory, for example. Now and then it was patchy where it used to be good. I forgot my ex-chum with great rapidity and the book, The Birds of Prey, even faster.
       The book is full of scenes when he is not completely in control of his faculties and can not see and/or remember clearly, whether from drink, illness, high altitude, and or actual fog. Barclay is almost constantly on the run -- not just from Tucker, but from his life: even when he completes another book he's happy enough to mail it off to his agent, indifferent to everything that happens with it after that.
       That much of it -- life, experience, would-be loved ones -- is just a fog he leaves behind him doesn't help; the thought of Tucker -- his constant shadow, but also remaining always entirely insubstantial (in his own way, the single-minded Tucker also never manages to be more than a paper man, without anything more to him) -- just the (in)tangible manifestation of what haunts him.
       Much of it comes down to the fact that, as Barclay yells at Tucker: "You don't know who I am ! Nobody knows who I am !" The thought of biography -- of being reduced to the page -- so terrifies him that, for years, all he can do is run from it. From his would-be biographer, in the form of Tucker, but also -- and obviously futilely -- from himself. After one of Tucker's advances, he asks himself: "had I deceived myself ?" -- but in fact that is a worry that he constantly carries with him.
       The hoard Tucker was after from early on was the motherload of papers sitting in Barclay's old house. The academic wanted to be Barclay's official biographer, but the truly important access that conferred was not to the man but to those papers. Barclay does eventually come full-circle, returning to Liz's home (where he is immediately confronted with yet more of his personal failures, as husband and father) and to that pile of paper. It comes as no surprise what he plans to do with this: "paperweight of a whole life" -- "a positive mountain of mostly white paper"; a nice touch then is that, if Barclay does indeed get the final word -- as this, as he repeatedly reminds us, is his manuscript, his life, his summa -- it is darkened by the shadow of Tucker, lurking nearby still .....
       The Paper Men is an odd piece of work. Nominally a satire (or rather: farce) of academic obsession (and an academic's obsession) with the life of a literary man, and the silliness of 'official biography', it is, in fact, much more (though, not least, a novel about the silliness of literary or indeed any 'biography' (or self-reckoning ...) in general). Significantly, Barclay's actual works barely matter: beyond some titles and mention of how the books have been received, there's no hint of the substance of Barclay's creative work; similarly tellingly, the papers Tucker is so desperate to see aren't those of the readily-available (but, as noted, basically ignored) novels, but rather what amounts to detritus. Barclay flails in his efforts, but admirably avoids falling back on either -- the fiction or the banal day-to-day record found in his other paperwork. Whether it's a more satisfactory form of a 'life' than what Tucker might have managed remains an open question; in a way, Barclay manages to evade the question and issue by limiting his account almost entirely to these last years of his life that are spent, in one form or another, almost entirely on the run; the inescapable conclusion is, of course, that the true life remains elsewhere.
       Neither of the main characters is very pleasant, but they do make a rather amusing pair. Tucker's strained (but also very clear-headedly manipulative) desperation and Barclay's cruelty make for some fine confrontation scenes. Barclay's fog -- whether alcohol-induced or simple forgetfulness (willful or biological) -- is, as such fogs generally are in any fiction, annoying -- to the extent that it seems to have even annoyed Barclay and Golding, as Barclay finally does give up drink (rather too late in the day and novel ...). But Barclay's pen is sharp enough, and his meanderings -- if rather too free-wheeling -- intriguing enough to keep readers following along -- if not quite as desperately as Tucker.
       But The Paper Men is also a rocky read. Barclay/Golding don't make things very easy for readers, and if not quite as many hurdles are set as they are for Tucker, there are quite a few to surmount. The rewards are there, too, however, for the reader willing to go along on this odd ride. There's quite a bit that's genuinely funny. And there's also quite a bit more to the text -- presented practically in short-hand, Barclay/Golding making little effort to spell many things out. (The occasional hint -- the parenthetical mention addressed right to the reader: "Yes, I know you'll have forgotten Johnny's dog. Look it up", for example -- hammers home the lesson that little is mentioned here that isn't meant to serve some purpose.) There is something more there, and it does make for a richer read than a first look might suggest.
       The Paper Men is probably best approached somewhat warily, but it's better than its reputation suggests; in fact, it is pretty darn good.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 November 2020

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Links:

The Paper Men: Reviews: William Golding: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author William Golding lived 1911 to 1993. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983.

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