Sometimes when you read a book and come to the end, all you can do is say “What the hell was that?” That’s what I asked after finishing The Paper Man by Gallagher Lawson, a book that puts the magic back in magic realism. Michael is the paper man. He was terribly injured in an accident and his father created a paper body for him that he inhabits. It’s a fragile body, coming apart at the seams at times, disintegrating into mush when it gets wet. For years, though, his father keeps him safe at home while his brothers mature and become part of the world.

Frustrated and lonely, he runs away to the city, but his escape is interrupted by a dead mermaid in the road. Robbed by a one-eyed man, with his arm torn off, he runs off toward the city, gets caught in the rain and is saturated and dissolving when he is rescued by Maiko, a former fur model who has just lost her job to mannequins. They symbolism is already getting very deep here.

The city is in turmoil. The North is threatening to annex it, there is rising anti-immigrant hysteria. It’s all very disturbing, but vague and undefined. Michael is also quite vague and undefined as his colors have run, his head is bashed in and he’s soggy, hardly able to walk on his mushy feet. Maiko sets to fixing him up as best she can, making masks for him. She makes several so he can choose different masks for different moods.

Michael goes to a galley, meets the artist and sees a portrait of the girl he was infatuated with before his accident. Mischa literally tears him apart, telling him he needs to rebuild himself to know what kind of man he wants to be. Doppelmann, the artist, helps him, restoring him to something better than before – a mature man instead of adolescent. Am I off in thinking that Doppelmann’s name is significant? As in doppelgänger? Michael does pretend to be Doppelmann, dressing as him and impersonating him.

Doppelmann is the most important person in Michael’s transformation. Mischa, though, forces transformation upon him. Maiko, though, accepts him as he is in every incarnation. So obviously, she matters the least to him and is easily abandoned by him more than once. In many ways, he is an ungrateful wretch!

Michael plays many roles, bookkeeper, mannequin, artist’s muse and lover, artist and revolutionary icon. But perhaps all the masks have to be stripped away for him to find himself and find who really matters.

3pawsI liked The Paper Man well enough, though I confess I was rolling my eyes reading Mischa’s explanation for why she was tearing Michael apart. Did it have to be quite so literal, quite so obvious? Couldn’t Lawson trust us to get it? I can tell this is supposed to be an allegory, but the deeper meaning is elusive. Sure, we tear off our masks and we find ourselves. So this is a story about identity. That is obvious. I am sure there must be something more subtle than that, but wonder what it could be. Is it that masks and anonymity enable us to be more revolutionary, violent and transgressive? Is this an allegory about society, about art?

The story is fast-paced with lots to make you think about. I think it would be better with fewer big holes, like what motivates the one-eyed man, what’s with the mermaid, and why is the window dresser such a jerk. We have these strange insertions (mermaid!) without any real reason. The story is bold enough without the extras. I recommend it if you don’t mind a book that does not answer all your questions. If you need the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted, do not even think about it.