Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is a delightful piece of “futureliterature” that spits in the face of gender, ignorance, and what it means to be “normal.” The protagonist, Paul (aka Polly), can change between male and female whenever he/she wants, and at first, I was a little confused by the pronouns when “he sat to pee with his exciting new vagina,” but then I realized that they never really mattered. Men, women, we’re all the same twisted people.
Andrea Lawlor has written a book that bridges the gap between where we are, and where we need to be: a state of fluidity, or at least accepting of the fluidity next to oneself. It’s tough to read Paul and not feel a bit Neolithic for conforming to gender roles, but the fact that the novel induces such a thought proves its success. An all-inclusive society won’t come about overnight, but works like this will definitely help to expedite the process. It makes me think of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout where he throws around the word “nigger” like it’s nothing but a word. Paul uses “fag” in the same manner, and the more you read it, the less intense it becomes, like a few letters tossed together, and nil more. Draining these words of their power in turn drains the dark, ominous clouds of race/sexism that hover over our heads. For this, I commend Lawlor and their push toward a better us.
Now, for the nitty-gritty: the book lacks a plot. Some reviewers seem to hate it, some love it. Twenty-two-year-old Paul doesn’t know what to do with himself, so he bartends and hooks up with strangers, bouncing from Iowa City to Chicago, Provincetown, MWMF, NYC, and San Francisco. This can easily be compared to On the Road, Poison and Antidote: Bohemian Stories, or any of those romantic French novels where the flâneur = god. There’s a party on almost every page, and for some reason, they never get old. What is it about cheap beer and social discomfort that keeps us so spellbound?
Before reading the book, ready yourself for dozens of esoteric pop culture references that hold no relevance in your life, like Divine, L7, and Holy Titclamps (however, if it wasn’t for Paul, I probably never would have stumbled upon the short film Invocation of My Demon Brother). Accordingly, it’s not always accessible to everyone, but then again, name a work of art that is.
Finally, if I’m being frank, the book may as well be considered porn. Kudos to Lawlor for their attention to detail, but sometimes it seems to go a bit overboard. One reference to drinking urine, sure, but two is a little much. If such content doesn’t appeal to you, then I would suggest staying away from Paul, because there are many other similar scenes that are equally as graphic. Lawlor is consciously putting sex on display, thereby challenging America’s stance on how “taboo” it is, how “wrong” we are for doing and thinking the things that make us human. There were times on the train where I looked up from the book, and thought to myself: if anyone knew what I was reading right now . . . .
My favorite sections of the novel are the vignettes that are intertwined and feel beautifully random. One such moment tells the tale of Paul’s mother and bookkeeper stepfather who can’t afford to feed their kids, so they decide that the best option is to drop them off in the forest. The kids aren’t good scouts, the parents think, so they won’t find their way back home, and if they can’t find their way back home, the parents won’t need to feed them. Problem solved. This is a Swiftian joke, one that deserves a tear rather than a laugh. The entire book is funny because it walks the line of otherworldliness, right here at home. The bizarre that isn’t too nuts, if you think about it.
Lawlor has a knack for descriptive language, depicting one of the characters, Diane, as “Albertine, a tiger’s paw, a marble faun in a pocket garden, a whiskey sour, a traffic light turning red at twilight.” Diane was Paul/Polly’s girlfriend, and when it ends, all seems hopeless, but all things pass. There’s love and loss in the book, laughter, and sex, so much sex. Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is a novel that everyone should read, but not everyone will like. It’s the concurrent dissection of a social chameleon, and a roller coaster ride around the United States. After the twirls and dips, you wind up at the same station, somewhat uneasy, but that’s part of the fun.