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Submitted Literature

The Paper Men

By William Golding

Review

The Paper Men is a metafictional, intertextual, playful and labyrinthine novel in which Rick L. Tucker, an American Assistant Professor of English Literature desperately pursues the clownish, alcoholic novelist Wilfred Barclay in an attempt to become his official biographer.  Backed by Halliday, a mysterious, devilish businessman, Tucker tempts Barclay to give up his ‘life’ to him.  But Barclay goes on the run from the would-be biographer.  As Barclay dodges across Europe, a slave to drink and his own grubby passions, he appears more and more grotesque.  He plays victim to Tucker’s relentless pursuit, but Barclay’s ego cannot fail to enjoy all the attention.  In the blur of alcoholism, he enters a mad, fantastical state which culminates in a stroke-induced vision of a red-eyed Christ or Pluto figure.  Like Christopher Martin in Golding’s earlier novel, Pincher Martin, Barclay makes God in his own image - this time with the red eyes of an alcoholic. We learn, in due course, that Barclay’s vision resulted from a ‘“leedle estrook”’ (PM, 124), after which his grip on reality is compromised and he walks in a strange world, afflicted with dreams, madness and a gothic sensibility. 

In The Paper Men, postmodern uncertainty and the personal costs of living a depthless life are registered in the fantastic theme of madness.  Like Matty in Darkness Visible, and Christopher Martin in Pincher Martin, Barclay is psychically challenged: ‘Was I mad?  Was Rick mad?  There was an intensity at times about his stare, white showing all round the pupils, as if he were about to charge dangerously.  A psychiatrist would find him interesting . . . This was a mad house’ (PM, 94-5).  Barclay’s drinking brings him into persistent bouts of delirium and fugue - a ‘“dipso-schizo”’ (PM, 116) world.  Barclay shares his madness with the obsessive, dog-like Rick who ends up literally ‘barking’.  Between them they succeed in breaking the statue of Psyche which stands at Barclay’s club, thus symbolizing their combined mental deterioration.  This link is emphasized in the club secretary’s comment, ‘“I simply don’t know yet how much it’ll cost to repair our Psyche”, and Barclay’s response: “Very aptly put, colonel, oh very apt”’ (PM, 183).  The cost soon becomes clear. When Barclay eventually decides to burn all his papers and deny Tucker his sought after biography, Tucker shoots him dead. 

 

For a full critical reading of The Paper Men see Crawford, P. (2002) Politics and History in William Golding: The World Turned Upside Down. University of Missouri Press: Columbia, pp.146-186.

Key Themes:

  • Alcoholism

Reference: William, Golding. 1984. The Paper Men. Faber and Faber, 1985

Reviewer

Professor Paul Crawford
Date Review Submitted: Sunday 16th August 2009