Journey of the Damned
The Paper Men By William Golding Farrar, Straus, Giroux; 191 pp.; $13.95
ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH The Paper Men, Nobel laureate William Golding's latest novel, the protagonist, the footloose novelist Wilfred Barclay, experiences a sort of revelation. Standing in a church, in front of a statue of Christ, Barclay realizes.
in one destroying instant that all my adult life I had believed in God and this knowledge was a vision of God. Fright entered the very marrow of my bones. Surrounded, swamped, confused, all but destroyed, adrift in the universal intolerance, mouth open, screaming bepissed and beshitten, I knew my maker and fell down.
Though doctors tell him he suffered a stroke, Barclay knows differently: "I saw I was one of the, or perhaps the only, predestined damned."
A thought from Oscar Wilde best explains this scene, which lies at the heart of Golding's novel. Wilde remarked that "while I see there is nothing wrong in what one does, I see that there is something wrong in what one becomes." Golding has used this idea to give an old genre a new lift. Where disillusionment and the loss of ideals gave force to the nineteenth century novel of education, the resurfacing of suppressed, forgotten, or missunderstood ideals gives Golding's novel its kick. Barclay, realizing that his beliefs have been Christian and his acts have not, understands that his life is past human repair. Barclay himself cannot do anything about the person he has become.
This revelation interrupts and transforms Barclay's struggle. An eminent though declining novelist, Barclay has been beseiged by a young American academic, Rick Tucker, who badly wants to be the foremost expert on Barclay. As the novel begins, Barclay discovers Tucker rooting through the dustbin looking for torn-up papers. The incident proves disastrous: after Tucker discovers a letter from an old lover of Barclay's, the novelist's wife leaves him. The scene also gives Golding the chance to satirize culture-vultures. When Barclay expresses his anger, Tucker, "out of the depths of his reverent absurdity," says "'I understand, Wilf. It's the Burden.'"
Repulsed by Tucker's methods and motives, Barclay flees from country to country. Through Tucker's persistence, though, Barclay learns more and more about his pursuer. Tucker, an emmisary from Astrakhan College in Nebraska, has been given a special commission by a man named Halliday, a patron of the school, to write Barclay's official biography. Halliday likes Barclay because of an admission in one of his books to "liking sex but having no capacity for love." Barclay, remembering that he wrote the sentence simply to record a stray idea, is confused and disgusted by Tucker's persistence.
The revelation that Barclay experiences drives him to take the initiative against Tucker. He had already decided that he would no longer flee from Tucker; instead, "Rick should become my prey." But when a friend recommends that Barclay overcome his "universal indifference" by cultivating his affections, even starting with a dog, Barclay adapts the suggestion by trying to reduce Tucker to the condition of a dog. Tantalizing Tucker with the prospect of being Barclay's literary executor, Barclay forces Tucker at one point to lap wine from a saucer.
Barclay brings to his task of destroying Tucker the moral confidence of a damned soul and the physical recklessness of an arrogant intellectual. Barclay knows that
a really manly man of Rick's size would pick me up and chuck me over the balcony down to smash. But Rick was a paper man. There was no strength in him. I was safe, had been deceived. He wasn't strong or hot or warm. He wasn't a murderer. He was a suicide if anything but I doubted even that. Suicide is a sickness in health and Rick and wholly sane....I held him with the power of the human eve over a beast.
Extending and then witholding the gratification of Tucker's desires, Barclay does his level best to break Tucker.
Golding use of the first-person narrative is adventurous but not entirely successful. There are places in the story where Barclay's joblessness and blindness to certain, considerations appear obtrusively. Barclay is often funny, but often jacks the relish and will that might constitute a more interesting study. At the beginning of the book, Barclay says that "I lived in the simple conviction, I now see, that I could only remain integrated by immorality." If Barelay could have realized this attitude prior to the events the novel (experiencing the idea without the brute force of a revelation), he would be a more, attractive, even an extravagantly absorbing character.
Barclay's stripped-down emotional life is also unfortunate, as this makes the analysis and delection of evil a cruder process. Barelay admits to being "a specialist in loneliness." However, a Large number of use to control sell-criticism and self-condemnation; Golding's novel would be more interesting if he had chosen to show how a sociable man came to perceive himself as evil. Golding isolates Barelay to show the frequent condition of cultural archons, people who wish to forward the work of art without committing themselves to any ideas about his life, but the fact that lonely people are often prey to all sorts of revelations, not all of them believable, is one of the novel's chief drawbacks.
Those who do not share Mr. Golding's religious views will be alarmed at the starkness of the contrasts he offers; those who are prone to agree with him on religion will be curious how religion is to be applied to society and how faith is to be reconciled with such popular intellectual systems as psychoanalysis.
Tension between a spiritual core and a realistic texture produces a certain wobbliness in The Paper Men, an instability most evident in Golding's treatment of Tucker. The object of rather savage satire at the beginning. Tucker at one point surprises everyone by coming forward to say "I know how I must seem to you, sir Just another sincere but limited academic." Then, as relations between the two men deteriorate further, Tucker is reduced to a caricature again. Golding's spiritual concern over Tucker as a human being wars with the literary problem of how to depict him. This tension, superadded to Golding's evident wish for "originality," makes for an interesting, distinctive, often funny and vet not commanding novel.