“WHAT CONFIGURATION of power constructs the subject and the Other, that binary relation between ‘men’ and ‘women,’” asks Judith Butler in Gender Trouble (Routledge, 1990). “Are those terms untroubling only to the extent that they conform to a heterosexual matrix for conceptualizing gender and desire?” she continues. These are the foundational questions at the heart of Andrea Lawlor’s debut novel Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (Rescue Press, 2017), which quickly propels its readers into Paul’s world — an at times confusing and exhilarating environment in which sexuality and adventure know no limits. Taking place in the 1990s, the novel is a concoction of unexpected interactions that place Paul at their center, though he is no novice. He is able to change his appearance and gender on demand and in a manner of minutes. Switching from Paul to Polly, he is the kind of mythical character that readers usually encounter in works such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Nevertheless, Lawlor thinks up a character that is irreverent, oozing profusely of promiscuity, and cruising life as if it were a colossal sex club, sleeping with whomever comes his way or expresses interest in doing so.

He whimpered as the rock star unbuttoned her jeans and pulled out her plastic cock, black and shiny to match her rock-star shininess. I am being penetrated by punk, he thought as she thrust into him, pushing his legs apart, collapsing onto him like a pistoning flesh blanket.

We first meet Paul as a teenager and film aficionado aching to get his hands on a pair of breasts or an erect penis. Within the first 30 pages of the book, Paul has already been intimate with two individuals of opposite sexes, switching gender between the two encounters. We quickly learn that Paul’s gender is mutable and that he’ll transform his body any time he thinks he might get something from the person he is interacting with, be it a sexual release or conversation. At first, Lawlor’s prose feels intentionally confusing. Paul switches genders but the pronouns used to qualify him never change. He is always referred to with a male pronoun and very rarely does he introduce himself as Polly, his female counterpart. At least, to the readers, he is always spoken of as Paul. Interestingly, it is important for him that his name represent perfectly the individual he embodies, though he is not interested in facing the societal backlash that may come of it.

He wasn’t ready for the obvious question that so far no one had had the opportunity to ask in the sober daylight. What was he? Even a film major knew that matter must come from somewhere. When his penis went away, where did it go? Or was it all an illusion, something he could make people see?

While Paul apprehends the way in which he will be perceived, understood, and judged by those who walk the same streets as him, he also craves physical attention and grovels to be seen. It’s this kind of erotic need for attention and societal requirement of anonymity that makes Paul so exciting. The groveling here is not passive, nor is it submissive. It is completely empowering. His state of desperation for physical contact is a weapon of dominance and the fact that he identifies as not having a type, ultimately makes him a democratic lover, and, as a result, relatable and highly contemporary. It’s through Paul’s constant eye for the next encounter, a knack for spotting out those with the interesting stories, and his insatiable need to experience everything all at once, that Lawlor manages to make the body a social tool that can be used to climb up the ladder — or slide face down to the bottom, as the case may be: “Paul is the game; Paul hunts only hunters. He hunts to be hunted […] Paul is sex, he is effortlessly sexual, effortlessly masculine […] his body is public property, his face a test.”

His appetite for any lover fades when he meets Diane at an all-female festival. To attend, Paul has to transform and maintain his body in its female form, and attempt to blend in as much as possible without getting caught. Working shifts in the kitchen in exchange for free festival entry, Paul meets Diane, whom he almost immediately falls for. This is the first time Paul is forced to sustain a female appearance for a long period of time, though the text itself never ceases to call him Paul, and the characters within the story Polly. Diane does not know about Paul’s extraordinary ability. The dramatic irony that Lawlor puts into place at this moment and at every step of the way is in part the reason why each event that punctuates Paul’s life pierces through the reader relentlessly. Paul’s relationship with Diane will determine and redefine his general philosophy around relationships, which, up until this point, he runs away from before they become too involving. Readers watch Paul mature as a woman:

Paul felt a flutter of shyness, a shy girl flutter, the flutter of not knowing if he was making a friend or something else. This was a strange experience for him, for whom all were prey, and he located the feeling in his new body. He was now having girl-feelings. Weird.

Just like readers witness him work through the difficult task of navigating a sexuality that he at times cannot control and that places him in a community he does not always identify with:

He’d sense his own nascent malleability for years, since childhood. At first, he’d assumed all gays were like him and had quietly decided not to mention that they could choose. But he had pieced together over time, without revealing too much, that he was even to the gays a freak. He was alone in this world. He regarded other gays now with mild condescension.

That Paul blends in better in the world as a woman, an identity that hardly ever comes to life in the text itself, contributes to the question of his origin story. In what reads as a fairy tale episode, Lawlor interrupts the narrative to let the readers in on a secret: who Polly is. In this tale, Paul and Polly are twins abandoned by their parents in a forest. “I am driving to a place very far away, where only women and children live,” says a woman they encounter along the way. Polly chooses to leave with the woman: “Paul will only grow up to become a man, and he will have to leave then. I will come with you and never leave,” says Polly, quick to abandon her twin. “‘Brother,’ said Polly, and she placed her left hand formally on Paul’s shoulder. He felt a strange current flow through this body. ‘You will be son and daughter to our parents now.’”

This in mind, it’s easy to conceptualize Whitman’s famous saying: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” It’s also easy for one to read this work as one would read a fairy tale, believing every detail, not questioning the characters’ actions, and taking them as fact. Despite the countless interactions Paul has with individuals who keep coming and going in and out of his life, the stability of his character, the believability of his thoughts, and the scenarios he puts himself in are sure to bring you to the edge of your seat — especially if you have a thing for gritty and uninhibited sexuality in writing.

Ultimately, Lawlor has written an intoxicatingly rousing masterpiece, which, as Eileen Myles puts it, “is restless, muscular and playful.” Lawlor gives us a glimpse into what it might have been like to struggle with issues of sexual identity in the 1990s, though the supernatural elements of their characters’ features suspend the narrative out of time, rendering it a timelessly contemporary exposé of an antihero with a heart made of fire.

His skin was electric, buzzing, humming like drugs, like fear, like New York City sidewalks, like any moment before any time he’d ever kissed anyone important.

¤

Michael Valinsky’s work has been published in i-D Magazine, Hyperallergic, OUT Magazine, BOMB Magazine, NewNowNext.com, and Kirkus Reviews, among others. He is the author of .TXT, Zurich: 89plus/LUMA Publications, 2014.