Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
Rescue Press, 2017
240 pages / Rescue Press
In the first paragraph of Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, college student Paul states his purpose for the night: “He had business with the world, codes to crack, so many questions. Tonight, for example, Paul needed to know what fucking was like for a girl” (9). So he changes his body into one with breasts and vagina, names her Polly, and heads out on the prowl in Iowa City.
The narrative then follows Paul / Polly cruising bars in early nineties Iowa City and Chicago, camping at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, and seeking adventure and connection in Provincetown and San Francisco. From moment to moment, by some never-explained trick, Paul can be Polly, or Polly can turn to Paul.
At first, the booze-and-drug-fueled roaming and sex-capades seems fun. It’s the ultimate identity fantasy, having the supernatural ability to shift shape. I would love the ability to change my form on a whim, to see what life is like for the other gender, to see what sex is like in all gender combinations (I’m bi, but this would be even more options). And Lawlor has some writerly fun with the concept. They’ve set the novel in the era of Riot Grrrl, combat boots and dyed bobs, mixed tapes and zines. They give Paul / Polly a voracious sexual drive and give us readers hot sex scenes in all manner of kink. Lawlor writes killer lines for their character: Viewing himself in his girl body and outfit, Lawlor has Paul think he “was the girl he wanted to fuck” (12). Polly, having sex with a butch female guitarist with a strap-on, thinks “I am being penetrated by punk” (18).
But there’s something more serious that Lawlor accomplishes by fusing fantasy into this story. They use a standard of mythological stories – a shapeshifter – to explore and question how humans enact identity. If our bodies can change at our wish, what or who are we really? Is Paul the default, and Polly the vacation? Or the reverse? And once we see Paul / Polly change a few times, we see these questions haunt them, and the toll transformation takes. They’re searching for who they really are, in the way of many young queer people. They’re trying on clothes and looks, and physical shapes, to see what feels right. What’s ultimately real.
This exploration of realness is something timeless, yet also timely. June is Pride, and parades and festivals across the country bring all sorts of drag queens and kings out to play. In pop culture there’s the return of RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the new Ryan Murphy show Pose and Joseph Cassara’s novel The House of Impossible Beauties both portray the drag and trans scene in Harlem in the 1980s.
Drag is perhaps inherently based on the idea that gender is all an act. RuPaul is famously quoted with this gem: “You’re born naked, the rest is drag.” Queer theorists Judith Butler, Monique Wittig and J. Jack Halberstam spend entire books exploring this idea, that gender is ultimately a set of learned behaviors one enacts in order to create the impression of something finite and consistent. Something real. We’re women because we’re taught what behaviors make a “real” woman. We’re men because we’re taught how to be “real” men.
Think too much about this and you can get dizzy real quick. Am I a woman because I have boobs and the ability to have children, or because I don the trappings of femininity—skirts and mascara and painted fingernails? Or, am I a woman because of the socioeconomic reality of lower salaries, sexual harassment, and withering scrutiny of my appearance at all times? And since I’m bisexual—am I a real woman?
Start analyzing others, and face vertigo. Is the man across from me at the coffee shop where I write this essay a man because he (probably) has a penis, or because he wears his gray hair short, his Wranglers tight, his t-shirt black? If a butch lesbian dressed the same way, is she a still a woman?
In their novel, Lawlor dives into this debate with their clever conceit. They also make Paul / Polly obsessed with what makes a man or woman real, what they should look like and act like. They’re the ultimate critic and mimic, taking notes to enact better performances, and judging others who don’t have consistency. “Paul compulsively searched for the flaws in that person’s gender,” Lawlor says when Paul takes the measure of a man or woman. “Most women weren’t very good at being women, he’d learned when he started to really study them” (66).
There’s a quest aspect to this constant analysis and assessment. Maybe by finding the perfect combination of trappings and body shape, Paul / Polly can finally discover who they really are. But unlike other quest stories, particularly the kind you’d find in mythology along with shapeshifters, in which there’s a sort of reckoning and final conclusion, Lawlor doesn’t give us resolution. Paul / Polly cruises, and roams, and changes, and has sex, and does it all again. At one point, Polly finds love with a woman in Provincetown, and we think perhaps the search for identity is at an end. A more traditional story might give us that denouement. But not here—Polly isn’t ready to commit to being Polly all the time. So she moves on.
I’m torn on whether this relentless wandering and changing feels satisfactory as an end to the novel, along with the fact that nothing seems to have been learned. Paul / Polly roams San Francisco, and thinks “he could stay here forever, and time would stop, and he wouldn’t have to choose anything” (353). It’s certainly a very real sort of ending, with all big decisions deferred in favor of momentary sexual adventure. Is it what I wanted to happen? Probably not.
Perhaps that’s Lawlor’s point, though: consistency, maybe identity itself, is an illusion. Life keeps going, and there’s never a satisfactory ending. Perhaps. I do wonder about Lawlor’s intention, though, and I wonder what could have been. One of the flaws of the book is a strange, too-brief shifting of POV. In a couple instances, we leave Paul / Polly and are with their friend Jane. But it’s only for a page or two. I’m left wanting, a bit tantalized. What would the book have been if we had another perspective on identity and gender? What could Jane have added as a counterpoint? As it stands, it feels like a revising mistake, and that’s disappointing.
Ultimately that’s not enough for me to discredit the book. Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is a clever, sexy, queer-as-hell coming-of-age for a Generation-X’er, and for this queer, Gen X reviewer, that’s something I’ve been missing.
Amy Lee Lillard was named one of Epiphany’s Breakout 8 Writers in 2018. Her fiction also appears in Atlas and Alice and the 2017 Berlin Writing Prize Short List anthology, and nonfiction is forthcoming in Off Assignment and Grist. She will complete her MFA from Cedar Crest College in July.
Photo Credit: Chris Boeke