Michael wasn’t born made of paper, but is remade that way in his youth. Tough break. As everyone around him at home matures, he stays the same, so it’s off to the city. “The city invites but doesn’t look after you. It accepts you if you’re willing to pay the price. Most people here were probably just like those more inland. They accept whatever is projected on them, make some money to stay inside, and hold onto that for the rest of their lives.” Being made of paper makes this suburban lifestyle a bit out of reach for Michael, despite his expertise at accounting, so – like most people made of different stuff – he falls in with the art crowd.
The Paper Man is an allegory, and allegory has a double-edge. There is likely an exact meaning for each of the elements in the story, but you could miss the whole point if you get even one of those elements wrong. This novel has enough going on that maybe it’s not a disaster if you fail to crack its allegorical code. Once I stopped trying to figure out what being made of paper meant (youth? being an artist? is it autobiographical?), then I stumbled into the more compelling questions of identity. (Wait – is that it? Is being made of paper an allegory for having a malleable identity? Gah – see what I mean?) Lawson handles identity really well, primarily using masks, which seems pretty on-the-nose, but he gets a lot of mileage out of it. Masks (or identity) are not merely personal in the story but a force for socio-political change. Even the city itself gets a sort of mask, in the form of cardboard facades.
You won’t find many answers in this novel; you’ll have to go to philosophy, religion, your own experience for answers. What you will find is a damn good exploration of questions of identity. How do we become who we are? Who makes us? Do we choose an identity or is one chosen for us? How changeable is that identity? Do we destroy and remake each other like a bunch of amateur Shivas? Or do we do it to ourselves like the phoenix? (That’s pretty quick work, if you’re made of paper.) If you have strong opinions on the topic of identity and where it comes from, you’ll find fist-fighting material in The Paper Man.