Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl — review

A luminous, complex debut

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Trans and non-binary characters are still rarely found in adult literary fiction, outside of the occasional offhand mention or plot device, but Andrea Lawlor’s debut Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is now a welcome exception; its Picador reprint in 2019 has made it one of the few ‘trans novels’ to crack the bigger presses. Paul… is a playful, sexy, deeply thoughtful evocation of ’90s queer culture, featuring a shapeshifting protagonist who can change his body at will. There’s also a vivid array of period-appropriate music woven into the story, soundtracking Paul through his various escapades (including a lot of sex, in a colourful plethora of gendered configurations).

But Lawlor’s novel is also remarkable in how its protagonist, Paul, occupies a particular ‘trans-ish’ territory, made deliberately messy and open. Lawlor, who is non-binary, mines a rich seam of genderfluidity and gender complexity in Paul… with a curiosity and intelligence reminiscent of Stone Butch Blues. (Coincidentally, Stone Butch Blues was released in 1993, the year in which Paul… is set, though it doesn’t make an appearance in the novel.)

Paul Polydoris is a 22-year-old bartender at the only gay club in Iowa City, where he spends most of his time seducing his various crushes (mostly men, some women), getting ‘A’s by writing headily oversexualised interpretations of movies for film class, and hanging out with his best friend Jane. Paul can adjust his body in various ways, which he uses both to change his aesthetic — becoming hairier and more muscled for his trip to a leather bar — and, most significantly, to change from Paul to ‘Polly.’ As Polly, he joins Jane at the all-women (and notoriously trans-exclusive) Michigan Womyn’s Festival, constantly fearful that he’ll be caught in male form, but he falls for a lesbian there and finds himself able to retain his female form more easily. As the book moves between cities, a myriad of queer subcultures and presences take up space in the background, from ACT UP to the copy of Bodies that Matter that Paul ‘futilely skims’.

Paul… is far more of a paean to the pleasures of queer life than it is a book of philosophy, and it evokes its time period magnificently. The wardrobes are exquisite, detailed down to the last buckle. Paul searches a Mennonite thrift shop for ‘uniforms or glitter-stitched girls’ shirts’ designed to ‘elicit swears from the frat boys’; as a girl, Paul wears ‘burgundy cords, his black Runaways tee shirt […] tight over his waffled long-john shirt, his Save the Whales! belt buckle with its fresco humpback’; clothes are stolen, thrifted, borrowed, torn, improbably paired. Lawlor builds an incredibly detailed world without the level of detail becoming cloying or overwhelming: the mixtapes Paul painstakingly compiles for his lovers; the zines he reads; the nuances of being queer on campus, in bars, in communes, at protests.

Equally, the book does do a lot of serious work on gender and sexuality, such as in its formal choices. Lawlor opts to retain ‘he/him’ for Paul throughout, even though he’s seen as, and sees himself as, a girl while in female form. This feels troubling, at first glance, but it means that we can’t use the change in pronouns to uncouple Polly from Paul. Instead, Lawlor works to wrap Polly’s girl-ness around the ‘he’ pronoun, distinguishing Polly from Paul even as they are bound together. We see Paul sink comfortably into any gender he touches, which opens up various questions: what does it mean to know you feel comfortable in a particular state of being, but that you might sometimes feel differently? When trans narratives are often encouraged to conform to the idea of being ‘born this way’, how do we deal with the possibility of our gender changing?

Transness colours the novel, informs its complicated aesthetic of movement and selfhood, even if Paul isn’t concretely trans himself. While the shapeshifting device avoids the ugly logistics of ‘passing’, I found myself anxiously bracing for the possibility that Paul would accidentally change back, or get ‘stuck’ between bodies — anxieties which, of course, resonate with a particularly trans quality, even if they don’t map cleanly onto transness within the novel’s world. Paul’s gender isn’t ever final or complete; the constant possibility of change is a site of a lot of the novel’s creativity and fertility. While there’s a background of loss in Paul…, the primary feeling is positivity about the possibilities of what we can be, and the freedom we should have to experiment. Everything is thrilling, even if it’s also scary.

Paul’s curiosity and multiplicity also informs Paul…’s nature as both a distinctly bi/pan and a distinctly gay novel: Paul likes sex with all genders but is identified primarily with being gay, and each of his ‘straight’ encounters is somehow edged (Paul avoids women who want a particular kind of heterosexual setup, knowing that he ‘couldn’t provide what the situation required’; later, he flirts with a straight man as Polly, but the encounter turns exploitative). Lawlor pays close attention to the complex power structures that keep bi/pan people from performing ‘straightness’. Paul’s precise sexuality often gets elided in discussions of the novel — understandably, since his ‘gayness’ is arguably more significant — but the book’s excavation of bi/pansexuality does important work, particularly since bi men are so deprived of representation.

For genderqueer and non-binary people, living in a binary-gendered society can sometimes feel like being suspended in a pressurised chamber, with few chances to take a full breath. Reading Paul… gave me a feeling of relief and release I don’t often remember feeling: yes, you get it, you understand. Maybe you can’t be newly out without hoping every book pressed into your hands will save you, but when your identity’s very existence is often questioned, there’s a particular kind of yearning for a novel that prises open the chinks in society’s gendered armour. Paul… is one of those novels, and I hope beyond measure that it leads to more.

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