Revolution and Love: The Paper Man by Gallagher Lawson
Gallagher Lawson’s The Paper Man is a rare narrative, announcing the arrival of an outstanding new voice that comfortably inhabits the strange place where literary fiction, surrealism, and gritty fantasy converge. An allegorical novel packed with emotional distress, obsessed with identity, and the role individuals plays in the machine known as the city, The Paper Man is at once an impressive debut and a novel that’s packed with echoes of many exceptional authors while retaining its uniqueness.
When Michael was 15 years old, he suffered a mysterious and devastating accident that denied him a physical existence. However, his father managed to keep him alive in a body made out of paper. A decade later, tired or dealing with such a fragile unchanging body as well as frustrated with life at home, he decides to leave home behind, running away to the city by the sea in search of adventure, change, and himself. The city is a place on the verge of a revolution, where people are buried at sea, humans perform the work of mannequins, and mermaids are found dead on the streets. To say the least, the city doesn’t give the young paper man a warm welcome. After being rescued from a violent rainstorm by an enigmatic woman named Maiko, Michael battles to find his place in the metropolis. Unfortunately, the city’s political turmoil and its weather combine to make Michael’s quest difficult. Then, to make matters worse, the paper man’s high school sweetheart Mischa reappears, opening old wounds and creating new ones. What follows is an exploration of identity and transformation and a deconstruction of the meaning of art, all of it wrapped in a smart, touching narrative about revolution and love.
The beginning of The Paper Man is somewhat reminiscent of Jacques Jouet’s My Beautiful Bus, but it quickly morphs into a surrealist narrative that walks the line between the hallucinogenic visions of Stanley Crawford’s Travel Notes and the weird elegance of Matthew Revert’s oeuvre. Lawson is fully aware of the way literary fiction’s flamboyance and attention to detail sometimes hurt the pacing, so he maintains the story moving forward at all times with a storyline that shifts between memories, introspection, dialogue, and action that goes from the purely artistic to the purely sexual.
Despite coming in at over 250 pages, The Paper Man is a quick read because Gallagher keeps the surprises coming. Part of it has to do with the fact that the main character is undergoing a perennial metamorphosis, much like the city itself, but it’s also because there is a lot of intelligent, precise commentary on everything from sexuality and employment to artistic vision and the shattering/co-opting of coping mechanisms.
“Masks were now truly multipurpose. They could protect a woman’s complexion from the ocean-side breezes to be a kind of armor, as the Paper Man had used one or to conceal and disguise; to correct the misshapen face he once had and to give alternatives to identity or celebrate the multiplicity of identity; to show nothing is fixed unless made permanent, like art.”
While Michael’s problems with his body and the unusual practices that go on in the city wouldn’t be out of place in a Brautigan novel, Gallagher’s narrative is the kind of noir-esque fable in which even the bright moments occur within a gloomy frame. No matter what he does, the main character is never the person he knows he is/wants to be. This lead to a painful search that forces Michael to transform his mind, body, art, and even sexuality, but the reasons behind each change are never as straightforward as they should be. Meanwhile, the process is constantly complicated by the feelings he has for the two women in his life, the haunting father figure who gave him life twice, and his inescapable fragility.
“After that, things became a blur of tearing sounds, mechanical clicking, and exposing his body to more. It was like the opposite of the work his father had done years ago. Instead of soothing hands that held his injured body and applied layers upon layers, meticulous detail to threading and concern with comfort, this was Mischa undoing all that. She tore, she pulled, she cut and shredded. She stepped on pieces, including his fingers, flattening his hands.”
The beauty of The Paper Man is that Gallagher created a surreal landscape and populated it with outlandish characters in order to give us a fresh look at our own reality, and he pulled it off without sounding preachy. Furthermore, there is a richness in the paper body that is explored, but not entirely, and that invites the reader to think about what the author left out, what he hinted at but never made permanent. Ultimately, this is a novel about art and identity that can be mined for hidden meanings and new interpretations as well as enjoyed for the uncanny characters and dreamlike atmosphere. Regardless of the path the reader chooses to take, this is a novel that deserves to be read.
by Gallagher Lawson