Paul is Dead
By Stephen Moles
Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, 2015
71 pages, $13.73
Reviewed by Megan Fahey
Paul is Dead is another of those standard, typical, run-of-the-mill novellas about a beret-collecting British journalist named Paul McCartney (no relation) who keeps an eyeball in a jar and works for a celebrity gossip rag that fetishizes A-list deaths and utilizes room-sized computer keyboards that contain every word in the English language. It’s got one of those regular, normal, everyday plots where the main character moves into an apartment full of free-roaming turkeys (who may or may not be exacting revenge on all humanity) and a mysterious red button, enigmatically labelled “DO NOT PRESS” which Paul uses to make a fortune gambling on celebrity death dates.
That old chestnut.
As if this showcase of organized absurdism weren’t enough, Stephen Moles also draws source material from the Beatles’ “Paul is Dead” conspiracy. This theory (still widely believed by fans called “Cluesters”) asserts that the real Paul McCartney died in a car wreck in 1966 and was swiftly replaced by a sound-alike look-alike named Billy Shears, which saved album sales and transitioned the Beatles into the Sgt. Pepper age. The hypothesis has been challenged and tested by photographic facial recognition evidence, haunting backmasked lyrics, and suspicious album cover symbolism. For example, in the background of the Abbey Road cover is an in-frame Volkswagen with a license plate reading “28IF”–how old McCartney would have been IF he were alive for the album’s release. “IF” is also the final (and only) word of Moles’ terminal and haunting Chapter 28.
While the Paul McCartney in Moles’ story isn’t exactly replaced by a duplicate, the parallels come through a series of bizarre e-mail correspondences which lead him to believe he may not in fact be his original self. While this can be a complicated subject to explore in seventy-one pages, Moles negotiates this territory well through his expert use of third person narration and his full and complicated secondary characters.
First, there’s Jenny: Paul’s lovably hateable office-mate, who provides a perfect contrast to McCartney’s misanthropism. Jenny’s dramatically vapid musings on which actors are “amazing” and which movies “changed her life” provide lovely, relatable moments of workplace hilarity (Plus she’s got a great rack). Then, there’s Ramon, a long time fan of Paul’s articles in Celebritality, and Paul’s only friend. Ramon–like Paul–is existentially unsure and can only prove his existence by sending Paul bizarre packages through the mail.
Even the minor characters are thick with meaty backstory. While visiting Computers in the Clouds, a panoptic internet cafe towering over downtown Norfolk, Paul is served by a waiter with a toe-thumb and a flair for over-sharing daddy issues. When a newspaper columnist discovers Paul’s big payoff after the untimely deaths of Amy Winehouse, Peter Falk, and the Macho Man Randy Savage, he invites himself into Paul’s home and is staunchly casual, despite Paul’s ramblings about psychic friendly-ghosts and the eyeball in the jar.
And the turkeys. Don’t forget the turkeys. In one of the most memorable passages of Paul is Dead, the narrator describes the mating ritual of a particularly virile male bird:
A fanning of the tail feathers then followed, accompanied by loud gobbling, before the turkey stamped its feet on the dirty floorboards and turned in circles as part of an erotic dance to attract females. What Paul found most fascinating was the way its head, snood and wattle changed colour so rapidly, displaying whites, blues, pinks and reds in quick succession. He felt slightly uncomfortable watching the sexual scene unfold at first, but he reminded himself that the animals didn’t share his embarrassment, and even if they did, the fact that he had been observed so often by the turkeys in the act of gratifying himself meant he’d earned the right to witness this sex show.
As demonstrated above, Moles’ ability to sync language at the sentence level with the subject matter of the text is another strength of this novella. Whether writing about the natural or lyrical world, the author is meticulous with words. Moles even describes McCartney’s irregular heartbeat as syncopated in 7/4 time–which, of course, matches the unusual time signatures of “All You Need is Love” and Pink Floyd’s “Money.”
While Paul is Dead may not ever rise to “Bigger than Jesus” status, Moles should be commended for accomplishing so much in such a small space. Each sentence is as packed as Shae Stadium 1965, the prose marches with a momentum as robust and unusual as our main character, and the absurd plot is a delightful distraction from the larger question at hand:
Money. Money. Money?
Love. Love. Love?