Friday, July 24, 2015

The Paper Man Is More Than a Man Made of Paper

Gallaghar Lawson is a name to remember in the coming years. He's got his finger on the pulse of something and it's led to a wonderful conflation of aspects of modernism and fabulism in the spirit of Franz Kafka but with a smidge of someone more contemporaneous, like Shane Jones or Amelia Gray.

Lawson's novel is entitled The Paper Man and recently released by Unnamed Press (a press to keep an eye on in the future; I just finished reading The Fine Art of Fucking Up by Cate Dicharry, another of their titles in this year's catalog and enjoyed it immensely, as well). The Paper Man, meanwhile, is quite an unassuming titled for a novel so packed with ideas, ambiguities and in general the good "stuff" that perpetuates a narrative.

I mentioned Kafka, Jones and Gray but I'd be remiss if I didn't also say that Lawson's book stands entirely on its own. I don't know if he is a reader and / or admirer of any of those authors, but regardless of any similarities in spirit, his novel has a tone that's unique to himself and the world he's conjured in the The Paper Man.

My philosophy, perhaps without really knowing it and bungling it many times in the past (or maybe I've literally written this before and forgotten), with respect to a works of literature, is to consider those narratives like you would a Rorschach Test. And by that I mean, my interpretation of a novel and its "meaning" will usually say a lot more about me than it will about the book itself. In general, I perceive this to be the case with most literary criticism. So much of what the reader "interprets" is something they either want or don't want from the story they're reading, and, in some weird and quasi-fatalistic way, that was true before they ever even laid eyes on said book.

That's not to entirely let the author off the hook. They have a role in the process, too, and certainly I can say things about myself while perhaps indicating things about a story that might not work for other readers (in their manifold forms), and in certain cases, might represent things the author him or herself also believes are lacking in their story. Broad strokes questioning of a given writer's choices isn't necessarily an indication of something latent in me, as reader, I mean, it can also be something that genuinely adds to the discourse, even if it's not the most chipper thought or comment added to the discourse surrounding a book. Most recent and glaring case in point would be questions of Atticus Finch's racial awareness, i,e, does he need to be the perfect incarnation of all that is good about white people, or as Go Set A Watchman brings to the table, can he be human, too? And does it have to be such a bad thing that he's human? I don't know. I haven't read that book yet, but the most glaring questions already swirling by plenty of people who no doubt have also not yet read it in too many cases at least adds to the discussion.

To that end, I'm a subscriber of Rebecca Solnit's thoughts on criticism, which she articulates succinctly and pointedly in her essay "Woolf's Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable." She says, "The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens up an exchange that need never end." The latter is the goal to aspire to whenever reflecting upon a work you admire. The Paper Man certainly lends itself to discussion and the kind of conversation that need never end.

And so the following analysis is filled with plenty of light spoilers. Therefore, read it with caution if that's something you're concerned about, spoilers. I hope with it I can open up the discourse, because Lawson's book is certainly one deserving of that treatment and, still more than that, deserving of many readers.

Michael, Lawson's protagonist, has recently left his home in the south for some kind of opportunity in the city. The vagueness of the topography and other elements of setting in the novel are what give it such a Kafkaesque quality. Michael lives in a land that is not entirely devoid of the one we understand as our own, but he also enjoys surrealist elements that are nothing like what you'd find in typical realist fiction. He's a man actually made of paper, which occurs after a train accident that also results his mother's death. His father, an artist, manages to save him, but leaves him trapped in the body of a boy made of paper.

One of the things I liked best about Lawson's description of Michael is that he leaves very little to the imagination. It works somehow. And as odd as it is to hear that Michael has been given a paper penis by his father, one that is as puny and flaccid as a roll of small coins, it seems important information and keenly brings to mind the fragility of this paper man (beyond his being composed of a material that is in itself so apparently feeble), among very many other things.

While questions of aesthetics and what makes for true, honest art are a huge component of the novel, I have to leave that to others, because, as though this were a Rorshach Test and I the one interpreting, those areas of concern didn't move me terribly much -- which says nothing of Lawson's novel and only of my own personal deficits, so take this as one example of what I mean in the preceding part of this review.

Indeed, I'm much more interested in the ways Michael is treated by the other primary characters, those whom I'd classify as Maiko, a young woman who takes him in early on both saving his life and growing to view him as some cross between her ward and romantic partner; the artist David Doppelman, whom he meets when he discovers the man has painted a portrait of the adult-version of a girl he loved in his childhood; and Mischa, that very girl he loved in his childhood who seems to see it as her responsibility to return Michael to reality, no matter the draconian measures required to do so.

The story is in fact separated by a moment in it when Mischa literally tears Michael apart. His old body is then made new by David Doppelman, who gives him an upgrade in every way, which includes his genitalia, one of the many things Mischa had mocked about him, as she both rightly and cruelly turned a mirror to Michael and tried to make him understand that he was not simply a victim but also a person who had to become something less flimsy if he ever wanted to grow into the person he dreamed of being, which included artistic aspirations of his own. In his new body, he gains a literal strength and a figurative confidence he'd never previously enjoyed.

He reunites with Maiko, with whom he'd had a falling out in the earlier part of the story because he'd lied to her about his dealings with Doppelman and his search for Mischa. He gets work in the window of a department store as a living mannequin, more or less, which is one of my favorite, and also arguably one of the most humorous moments in the novel, because he's absurdly expected to model department store clothing and dance and interact with two other non-living mannequins for the public's amusement. They play music and he finds himself increasingly invested in his part, until the day the window literally comes crashing down due to an explosion caused by forces from the north.

And as other reviews I've read have noted and I've already alluded to, there are only the most tenuous comparisons to be found between our world and that of the inhabitants of The Paper Man. The north is the power center, and the south and the city are at its mercy. Still, like our world, and the climatic finish of the novel, there feels constantly the prospect of combustion, one which a man made of paper seems perfectly apt to find himself at risk of being made tinder in.

I highly recommend The Paper Man, and with it all of the titles of Unnamed Press.

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