One of the many pleasures of Andrea Lawlor’s 2017 novel “Paul Takes The Form Of A Mortal Girl” is the realization I came to that this novel is more or less unreadable by a straight person. It’s saturated with vivid, unsparing depictions of not only gay sex but also the ecosystem that surrounds it — glances and recognitions and guesswork, a whole network of affiliations and signifiers that I doubt anyone at all uninitiated would be able to wade through without frustration. I even have some queer friends who tried to read this book and couldn’t get past what one called Lawlor’s “vulgar” style. The expectation that we can (and, more dubiously, should) untether queer community from the act of fucking is understandable, but an occasional reminder of the particular (maybe banal) site of queerness restores some revolutionary potential to the thing. There’s something lovely, anyway, about feeling at home in a book that your straight friends would likely throw across the room before too long, to be thrilled by recognition and curiosity that feels particular.
That being said, gayness is a lot more legible in the book than transness per se, despite the fact that Lawlor has become known as a member of a trans fiction-writing vanguard along writers like Jordy Rosenberg, Imogen Binnie and Casey Plett. That this imagined community is more of a listicle than a reality shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. “Trans literature” as a category was probably destined to be problematized out of existence before it could ever really come into its own. Transness was always too multiple and mutable to ever coalesce into a canon or even really a section of a bookshelf. It’s easy to see how one might think of this book as trans. Lawlor’s titular anti-hero is a shapeshifter whose powers seem to mostly exist in the realm of human possibility: He can change himself into a woman and can become a more masculine man, adding and shedding muscle and fat in various places like picking out an outfit. This can easily be read, if you only look at the blurb, as a liberatory allegory of transness, Paul’s abilities easily packaged into a metaphor for genderbending.
Lawlor doesn’t seem to see it that way, though: They said in an interview that Paul isn’t trans. What they have said about the book — that they started the book as a way to talk about “picking up people in bars,” that the book is a sort of time capsule of the ‘90s — seems to indicate that their goals aren’t to make a trans vanguard book, or at least not a straightforward one. This is apparent to anyone who has read more than the first ten pages. The opening fanfare, which involves Paul changing into his girl alter-ego Polly and getting picked up by a punk rocker dyke, moves quickly into a sequence of Paul in boy-mode hooking up with a bearded Visiting Writer. Paul’s mores, though decidedly omnivorous, seem to rely on a sort of balance (“Paul wanted to fuck someone tonight, after the business with the rock star”). The fluidity is from night to night, not moment to moment: Paul is, generally, either a gay man or a lesbian woman. Lawlor’s game is something other than a straightforward valediction of gender fluidity as we understand it today.
Their interest seems like it has more to do with exploration, with knowledge, with covering as much ground as possible within the scope of the novel. That being said, it’s worth pointing out that the novel doesn’t really resemble any of the standard types — it’s not a hero’s journey or a bildungsroman. Lawlor said in an interview that they found some difficulty in writing Paul’s story with a conventional three-act structure, one that would involve him “learning a lesson.” They write: “I ended up doubling down on a more episodic structure because I realized my reluctance had to do with my understanding of how people change, how I’ve changed — really slowly, recursively, making the same mistakes over and over.” As the poet Brian Blanchfield pointed out in his excellent review in Bookforum, Paul’s story has more to do with the picaresque than with the bildungsroman, especially in that picaresque is a genre that calls for a certain kind of personality — adaptable, adventurous, forceful, wily — as well as an episodic approach to plot. He is able to read people’s affiliations and types based on little signifiers, and is also capable of applying the same scrutiny on himself. Paul is all of these things, an endlessly curious and savvy reader of people who is never content to stay in one place. His travels place him in dispirate places — Boystown in Chicago, rural lesbianism in Michigan and in off-season Provincetown, the “various” atmosphere of androgynous, utopic San Francisco. Lawlor is, like Paul, interested in covering a lot of ground, finding things out. Sex is one way of learning about people; so are long-term relationships and parties and friendships. The shapeshifting could, in the end, just be Lawlor’s way of showing us what else exists, giving Paul access both to leather bars and to the famously transphobic Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Paul isn’t transgender, he’s multiple.
If you’ll allow me a bit of an overread — reading this book as a bona fide transsexual was interesting because it reminded me that I know of more than one trans person (usually transmasculine) who refers to themselves as a shapeshifter. Based on several choices they could make, they could convincingly pass as one or the other gender. For those of us who are slightly gender-ambivalent anyway, this is an appealing choice if you can pull it off, and it’s usually less difficult than one might think. Trans people, like Robin says, are “like everybody else, only more so.” We know better than anyone else that the line between genders is thinner than you might think, and a lot is possible with a certain attention to detail. In my case, sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have been predisposed to another path. My curiosity has never really metabolized into desire, but I’m not ruling it out.