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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Polly & Paul

This is a review of Andrea Lawlor’s book Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. CW for explicit discussions of sexuality.

I love the word queer, because what's useful about it is that it has the potential to be radically inclusive. I hope it signals an interest in, if not radical political thought, at least a destabilising. Destabilising binary ideas of gender and sex. I really struggled with this feeling of not being trans enough, I don't feel like any of the words really work. I like words that leave things a little unclear. The main thing for me is if you respect people self-determination, and if somebody says they're queer, or they're trans, they are, and it's not that big of a deal.

This is how Andrea Lawlor describes their relationship to queerness. This relationship informs much of their trans fabulist novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. The titular character, ‘feminist, queer, anti-phony, anti-bourgeois’, (31) is a perfect subject for exploring such a radical, destabilising inclusivity. Paul is something else, too; mythical. Paul is a shapeshifter, adjusting his body to suit his tastes. But this conceit is added additional depth by tying Paul directly to European folkloric tales of magic, and eventually to notions of changelings from Ireland.

Throughout the book, the story is punctuated by gender-bending twists and takes on the fairy tales collected (or variously invented and reinvented) in the nineteenth century. These function as sly commentaries on Paul’s state-of-being, a detached look on his relationship to himself and his world, distorted psycho-biographical snapshots of his internal development. Through that lens, Hansel and Gretel becomes Paul and Polly in a fable about parental abandonment and the discovery of imposed gender categories. The Wolf falls in love with Grandma and learns from Fox how to inhabit Red Riding Hood’s body. The story of the fisherman marrying a Selkie is my favourite inclusion, becoming a metaphor for queer relationships that acts as a perfect microcosm for the whole book.

Paul embodies an inversion and rejection of trite liberal universality; for him, the universal is found in what is excluded from it, which he seeks out. There is no allowance for compromised respectability or glossing over the violence of conservative social orders. ‘They don’t worry about alienating us’, Paul observes, ‘when they’re beating the crap out of some baby drag queen.’ (25) But rebellion is not posited as an end; rather, it is foremost grounded in a feeling of his desires as too encompassing to be limited:

He was an omnivore, an orange-hanky flagger, an aficionado of all-you-can—eat buffets. In the elevator Paul just as often imagined the hand-holding, the running down the rainy street with, his hot palm on the scripted should of some boy, the being cruised, the reading Proust to, the picnicking, the kissing, the eating take-out, the spending the day in a borrowed bed (33)

References abound in Lawlor’s novel. Their text is suffused with other texts, often evokes in playful humour. In his backpack, Paul discovers ‘the paperback copy of Discipline and Punish he was reading for school. He could fit it in his pocket, and any guy who saw it would assume it was porn.’ (49) Trying to relate his own shapeshifting to that of literature: ’The closest thing he found was Orlando, but Paul wasn’t some countess who could just instruct the servants in his castle to be cool.’ (66) Virginia Woolf and Michel Foucault (and various others) are obvious points of departure for this book, but Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl resists in being reduced to either.

Indeed, this is a book that simply refuses to be reduced per se. ‘Paul thought. Had he always been a girl?’ (120) This self-enquiry, which occurs as Paul starts to play with his gender quite seriously (or seriously for Paul) is followed by a series of memories that could be described in current online trans parlance as egg moments (anticipations of a trans identity). These experiences for Paul include examples of gender nonconformity, from media interests to kids toys, but also sexuality, ‘Paul remembered the time he had sex with Heather Federson, how jealous he was she got to feel a dick inside her, how she got to feel hands on her breasts.’ (122) When Paul asks his lover Diane the same question, she confirms ‘As long as it’s permanently unclear what it means, I’ve always been a girl.’ (123) Lawlor’s book refuses to sanitise or package some definitive experience, just as they refuse to dissect and compartmentalise different aspects of Paul.

Sex is absolutely central to Paul’s experiences of gender, just as gender is central to his experiences of sex. This is apparent at the start, when we learn in paragraph one: ‘Paul needed to know what fucking was like for girls.’ (3) And when he quickly becomes ‘the girl he wanted to fuck.’ (6) Paul is interested in gender, but not as a way to exclude possibilities; we learn he ‘could make himself be attracted to anyone.’ (29) What aligns him so strongly with queerness is a desire not to be limited: ‘What he shared with gay men he met later was the claustrophobia of doing what everyone else did[…] Heterosexuality = marriage = death, Paul knew.’ (141) You get an echo of the freedom enjoyed by Woolf’s titular protagonist Orlando.

The novel is set during the 90s, and its concerns and politics is very much of that period. This can be seen in the language, for instance, when Paul encounters a trans man; he ‘had never met a transexual guy before Franky.’ (247) It can be seen in the emerging battle grounds between gender identities and the of a prejudiced, restrictive and reactionary form of transphobic feminism. By situating their book in this frame, Lawlor indirectly and effectively explores the roots of a lot of contemporary social forces. Paul exists prior to the splintering off of gender from sexuality, and he intimately relates these two facets of himself:

The minute he had confirmation (besides his own gaydar) that a subject was a homosexual, Paul compulsively searched for the flaws in that person’s gender. Every gay had these flaws, Paul thought, although sometimes the flaw was being too perfect. (58)

The genderqueer activist Riki Wilchins wrote in an essay collected in Burn the Binary! that:

In the gay community the focus on immutability has led to promoting sexual orientation in a way that is completely removed from gender expression. […] In the trans community, just the opposite is the case. Gender is promoted at the expense of sexual practice. It’s OK for me to say I’m changing my body because of my ‘gender identity.’ But it would considered superficial, even perverse, to say I was doing so because having a more feminine body would turn me on. […] When gay activists began asserting, “We’re just like straights, we just sleep with the same sex,” that “just like” was shorthand for “gender.” It said, “We look and act just like your parents, your friends, or your boss: don’t be uncomfortable with us.” And when feminists began explaining, “We’re not trying to be men,” the phrase “trying to be men” was also shorthand for “gender.” It said, “We’re just like your wives, mothers, daughters: don’t be uncomfortable with us either.” […] It’s fair to say that “transgender” was created by the gay and feminist movements. Its emergence became practically inevitable from the day those movements began moving away from gender.

Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl shows in fictional form the necessity of restoring a more fluid, multifaceted conception of self. Or rather, the absurdity of trying to artificially conjure and sustain any other kind of conception. It is not just about gender and sex, it is about people, desire, not having a completely worked out notion of who we are because that is always impossible, and because in any case who we are is constantly becoming—whether we are becoming a mortal girl or something else.


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