Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl
Andrea Lawlor’s debut novel follows gender chameleon Paul Polydoris (aka Polly) on an explicit romp through 1990s American queer subculture. At 22, Paul is an arrogant, irreverent college sophomore who is also a shapeshifter: he can transform his gender by willing it to happen. This ability grants him access to spaces and experiences outside the bounds of inhabiting a fixed gender, and his quest for self-understanding takes him from Iowa City to Michigan, Provincetown and San Francisco. Along the way, he accumulates a catalogue of gritty sexual conquests, never quite satisfying his promiscuous appetite – he describes his ability to be attracted to almost anyone as “one of his virtues and one of his skills”. In Paul, who is simultaneously self-conscious and attention-seeking, Lawlor has created an enfant terrible with heart.
Lawlor is a trans-masculine, non-binary writer who came of age in 1990s New York City. Their novel is imbued with nostalgia for an era of gender politics and activism defined by ACT UP and the AIDS epidemic; radical queer theory and seminal texts such as Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble background the action. The novel’s soundtrack is Paul’s lovingly curated mix-tapes of PJ Harvey, Sonic Youth and the Pixies, while recognisable queer archetypes fill out the cast. Full of frothy pop-culture references, irony and in-jokes, Paul … is a sassy read, skilfully balancing humour with pathos.
Influenced by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Lawlor presents gender transition as an empowering, albeit not uncomplicated, experience. Lawlor wants us to recognise that the infinite possibility of queer life is a double-edged sword: it is equal parts promise and predicament. Paul’s shapeshifting talents, which have a lineage in speculative and science fiction, also open up the novel’s narrative potential: realist chapters are interleaved with short excursions into fairytale and myth.
This experimentation with form and genre is a trend seen in recent trans fiction, such as Jordy Rosenberg’s metafictional Confessions of the Fox, Akwaeke Emezi’s surreal Freshwater and Rita Indiana’s dystopian Tentacle. Rather than shoehorning unconventional stories and voices into conventional fictional frameworks, these writers have embraced the freedom of narrative ambiguity. Collectively, they signal an emerging canon of sexy, smart queer fiction that would likely make Virginia Woolf blush.
Picador, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "Andrea Lawlor, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl". Subscribe here.