Paul…, despite being unapologetically queer, is a book that deserves to break out of the LGBT speciality bookshops, such as the one the protagonist works in. Lawlor’s writing is evocative and urgent (“the whole room sweated in unison”, she writes of a club; taking a night walk, the “air is like papercuts”) and very funny at times, thanks to Paul’s occasional snark and his naivety (“The roommates were about to leave for Joshua Tree, which Paul pretended to have already known was a real place”), and the intelligence of much of his social circle (at times pretentiously so, for which they’re gently mocked by Lawlor)...If there is one aspect where the book stumbles, it is the intermittent fairytales that form backstories, perhaps inspired by Lawlor’s interest in Greek mythology. Then again, Paul is a protagonist of supernatural abilities himself.
Paul Polydoris, the protagonist of Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, can change sex whenever he wants, with no magical springs necessary... Like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl initially seems relatively conventional: its protagonist is a non-realist semi-superhero, yes, but he moves through an otherwise realist world... [The] episodic structure brings with it a strange sense of voyeurism: it’s as though Lawlor were not Paul’s creator but his reality TV producer, able to observe him and nudge him, but not fully to control him. The question of what Paul really is is pleasantly undecidable... For a cishet reader like me, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl offers an education in gay experience in the 1990s – full of lore, zines and raves – but it’s not preachy or didactic; there are no sneaky lessons, or if there are, they’re so sneaky I barely noticed them.
The book, like its main character, eschews definition for something much more playful. Though it replicates in some way the bildungsroman form, or even the künstlerroman, the birth of the artist, the “journeying” that Paul takes is not so much one of enlightenment or greater knowledge, but through different queer communities, different forms of sexual and intimate relationships, and the myriad possibilities of his shapeshifting form.
Exploring the malleability of gender and desire, and paying homage to Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando,” the book follows Paul—sometimes Polly—as s/he searches for love and the “uncontaminated truest” self. The quest leads through New York City at the height of the aids crisis, Iowa City’s queer punk scene, off-season Provincetown, a womyn’s festival in Michigan, and, finally, San Francisco. Lawlor successfully mixes pop culture, gender theory, and smut, but the great achievement here is that Paul is no mere symbol but a vibrantly yearning being, “like everybody else, only more so.”