Rescue Press ($18)
by Jeremiah Moriarty
Both fable-like bildungsroman and exhilarating ode to mid-’90s queer culture, Andrea Lawlor’s debut novel Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is the story of Paul Polydoris, a gay man in his early twenties with the uncanny abilities of a shapeshifter: he can magically change his body from male to female at will, shifting from Paul to “Polly” with youthful zeal. Full of laugh-out-loud insights and dreamy escapades, the novel takes Paul on a journey to chase love (or something like it) across the binary and across the country, into record stores and cafés and dark Boystown backrooms. Along the way it posits questions about identity, pleasure, and queer theory with winged lightness—which is to say, it’s fundamentally, as Michelle Tea writes admiringly in her back-cover blurb, a “deeply cool book.”
The year is 1993 and Paul is a bartender at a gay bar in Iowa City, a college town rife with angsty punks, activist queers, and mysterious out-of-town visitors. A film major from New York with a very Gen-X love of zines and mixtapes, Paul is a disaffected student more interested in whatever lessons can be learned from a night out. The only person who knows his secret shapeshifting skill is his queer best friend Jane, a stylish grad student, though his activist roommate Christopher—an ostensibly stable counterpart to Paul and his wanderlust ways—is so unphased by Paul’s already gender-blurred aesthetic that it’s not initially clear if he knows or not. One of the novel’s many strengths, in fact, is its descriptions of clothes, style, and general aesthetic, as Lawlor demonstrates in this early scene where Paul is dressing himself before going out:
He changed into a clean tee shirt in the walk-in, carefully rolled the sleeves of his Viyella shadow-plaid above his biceps like the picture of Jean Genet on the cover of that new biography, and stuck a clean faded green bandana in the left pocket of his 501s. . . . Paul shrugged into his River Phoenix coat, dark blue corduroy with fleece lining, and walked out of the kitchen like he was walking into Studio 54.
Lawlor’s prose can be maximal in its use of cultural references, in its collaging together of keen observations and pop culture signifiers, but it also flows easily. It does occasionally, like Paul, take strange detours; the closed third-person perspective will sometimes loosen to omniscience and give way to fairy tale-like passages, complicating any simple origin story a reader might expect from a character like Paul or a story like this one. The warm tone and livewire voice remain consistent throughout, however, and the multiple origin stories add a radical potentiality to the novel. The breezy pace of the text feels like a fittingly swift slide for someone like Paul, who moves fluidly between sexes and states of being, between literal states and the relationships (if not responsibilities) that take him there.
Lawlor uses male pronouns for Paul throughout the novel, which likely has more to do with readerly coherence than anything else, but this fact—as well as Paul’s negotiation of historically female-only spaces like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival—might complicate the experience of reading the novel, depending on the social positioning you bring to it. But culturally-identified queers of most persuasions will find themselves reflected back here, as the text largely eludes rigidity or judgement, and bringing a rigid politics to the proceedings would feel almost beside the point, as the delights of mutability—of desire, of life paths, of presentation—are intrinsic to the novel’s appeal.
In its nuanced treatment of a conceit that could easily yield to gimmick or cliché, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is a dazzling novel about the ordinary magic of inventing ourselves, about the uses of the body, and about containing Whitmanian “multitudes.” Lawlor is a magician, and a very good one, too.