Join Hafta-Ichi to find out the article “Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor – urgent and evocative | Fiction”
You might think a novel that positions itself as a Bildungsroman in which the lead character is described as a flaneur who makes zines would be insufferable – an assumption that Andrea Lawlor acknowledges in their playful and charming debut, which follows 23-year-old Paul on his queer journey from a college in Iowa City to the rainbow-coloured lights of San Francisco.
Lawlor, who is non-binary and takes the pronouns they/them, crafted Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl on and off for 15 years while teaching creative writing. It is set in 1993 and nails the era. Some novels wear their references heavily, labouring over authenticity, but Lawlor scatters just the right amount of mentions of Levi’s 501 jeans, bands such as the Breeders and, amusingly, even the advent of latte culture. One can almost feel the rattle of the cassettes and hear the click of the boombox buttons during Lawlor’s wonderful descriptions of making mixtapes for one of Paul’s partners.
Paul… is a story about love: finding romantic love with other people, learning to love oneself and discovering the love and acceptance of a community. It’s also a novel about sex: lots of it. The New Yorker described Lawlor’s book as “smut” and there is lots of dildo action, soaking wet knickers and spitting on hands before anal sex in bathrooms. The sex is mostly gloriously written – which is not an easy skill, as the annual Bad Sex in Fiction award for the most egregious passages of passion attests. (There is one exception: when Lawlor describes a vagina as a “slidey packet”, which we will never, ever speak of again.)
The main point of the plot is that Paul has a secret… he can shift between genders at will. (Lawlor has cited both Woolf’s Orlando and Ovid’s Metamorphoses as influences.) He can summon breasts and watch his penis shrink into his body to be replaced by a vulva and vagina. This means that for some of the book, Paul is Polly in a lesbian relationship with the radical vegan Diane (Paul occasionally sneaks off to eat burgers), and for much of the rest of the time a gay man whose bedposts gather so many notches as to basically be reduced to sawdust.
But Paul…, despite being unapologetically queer, is a book that deserves to break out of the LGBT speciality bookshops, such as the one the protagonist works in. Lawlor’s writing is evocative and urgent (“the whole room sweated in unison”, she writes of a club; taking a night walk, the “air is like papercuts”) and very funny at times, thanks to Paul’s occasional snark and his naivety (“The roommates were about to leave for Joshua Tree, which Paul pretended to have already known was a real place”), and the intelligence of much of his social circle (at times pretentiously so, for which they’re gently mocked by Lawlor).
As well as the fun and the sex, there is a reflectiveness. Aids makes a tragic appearance and incidents of homophobia and racism aren’t glossed over. Neither is internal homophobia.
Paul/Polly isn’t always likable. He can treat his friends shittily and doesn’t think twice about petty theft, but we root for him throughout since Lawlor never hides his insecurities, his heartbreak, his uncertainty. His essence is much more than his ability to transcend gender. As a point of accuracy, the word trans isn’t used at all, because it wasn’t part of the language of the time.
As in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, San Francisco’s queer scene is populated with endlessly interesting people – in particular, Paul’s roommate Ruffles – but supporting characters from Paul’s nomadic life allow us to know him in ways he might not always readily disclose. If there is one aspect where the book stumbles, it is the intermittent fairytales that form backstories, perhaps inspired by Lawlor’s interest in Greek mythology. Then again, Paul is a protagonist of supernatural abilities himself.
The 48-year-old Lawlor is part of a recent crop of older debut novelists; Paul… was worth the wait.
• Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor is published by Picador (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor – urgent and evocative | Fiction