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Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Book review: Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, Andrea Lawlor (2017)

This brilliant novel contains speculative elements that are evident even in its title but the book it reminded me of is ‘Veronica’ by Mary Gaitskill, which was published in 2005 and which I read last year. I put up a review of it on 31 October 2018. There’s something about Paul that reminded me of the character of Alison in Gaitskill’s book. The dissolute youth, the sojourn in California, the being in thrall to pop culture, the presence of death. Gaitskill’s book is, like Lawlor’s, very good and, like it also, has an autobiographical source.

It is a commonplace of popular culture for someone to “take the form of” something else. It might be a superhero who takes the form of a flame or a wave or it might be a god that takes the form of a bull. This kind of trope has been part of every culture from the earliest times, as we know from records that date back to classical antiquity and even, beyond that seminal historical period, in eras during which other communities flourished.

The idea of change (by some called “progress”) is also an idea that is firmly rooted in technological developments that have accelerated since the 19th century as humanity has become more and more able to control the world it inhabits and of which it forms a part. In many countries, alongside such changes, there have been commensurate cultural and legislative changes resulting in the individual’s ability to more securely hold the respect of his or her peers, and of society more broadly, despite differences rooted in sexuality, gender, ethnic background, or nationality. Most recently, we have begun to talk about gender identity and it in this context that this interesting book achieves its most decisive effect.

The authors decline to identify exclusively with either gender and prefer to be referred to using third-person plural pronouns (eg “they take” instead of “she takes”). In the interests of fostering diversity in my review I will follow this convention. Apologies in advance to those who might find such a practice confusing.

I say “most decisive” because I don’t think it’s fair or useful to limit the novel’s ambition to a narrow political scope. By blurring the lines between sexuality and gender, Lawlor does us a service. Reading this book, you are aware of the performative nature of much of social interaction. Hence the adjective “interesting”. I readily sympathised with the protagonist (Paul) and quickly adapted to the cognitive demands that his odd physiognomy places on the reader.

As you get older considerations relating to sexuality become far less important; this aspect of existence thankfully diminishes in importance when you are less burdened by the physiological urges that make people so interested in sex for much of their lives. But I was myself young once and I can see how this kind of novel would be useful for someone who is searching for ways to understand themselves and their place in the world. For just this reason life, for young people, can be confusing and difficult. As you get older the challenges you face are more likely to stem from such considerations as how to stay awake beyond 9pm and what sort of sugar-free soft drink to buy from the supermarket now that you have given up alcohol. Drugs and sex and road trips and music concerts are not the most important things once you are over the age of 55.

But they are for Paul Polydoris and his alter-ego Polly and Lawlor’s writing shines particularly brightly for the sex scenes. Describing sex well and accurately is a fraught business. The record is strewn with solecisms and absurdities produced by writers of every ilk who have tried it and have failed. Lawlor understands the need for both precision and a dispassionate gaze to produce a kind of alchemy of restraint and honesty. They also focus on the feelings of the people engaged in the acts described in a way that helps the reader to understand more about the characters, what they believe is important, and how each feels about the other person.

It’s a masterclass in empathy. This approach results in some very good paragraphs indeed as the author tries to depict Paul’s life in a way that is suitable for the scope of the work. This honesty extends also to the way that Paul deals with people who are close to him, such as his friend Jane and the various sexual partners he meets with in the course of the story. At a festival in Michigan, Polly meets a girl who likes girls, and this connection leads to a fraught conversation when Diane drives to Iowa one day not long after the festival has finished. When she arrives, Paul is working in a bar. Paul’s university study is only possible due to the low-level service jobs he takes in order to pay for food and rent, and this aspect of the novel is, like Paul’s passion for music, rendered in a way that lets you feel how Paul relates to the people involved, such as Greg, the bar manager, and James who, like Paul, works behind the bar making and selling drinks for customers.

It is winter when the novel opens, and it is 1993. Diane invites Paul to visit the house where she lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and on the way Paul stops by in Troy (near the New York capital of Albany) to see his mother. As these trips are completed, a fuller picture of Paul slowly emerges. You get to see different parts of him as he meets with different people and does different things. There is drama and there is humour – as when Diane chastises Paul for ordering a meal with bacon in it – of a rare kind. Such scenes are like a breath of fresh air but this novel is full of such unforgettable moments.

The story of Paul and Polly is interrupted on occasion by contemporary fairytales that have an appropriateness about them, although they are thrown in willy-nilly without warning or explanation. There’s also an attempt at a movie script that fictionalises the situation Paul finds himself in, which is a bit crazy. It’s a meta-fictional device working inside a novel with a deliberate advocacy role, one which skews standard narratives in a way that tries to normalise the non-binary (in fact it goes further than this).

This is all very knowing and self-referential. It is a kind of sense-making that people who live outside the mainstream perform in order to explain their lives. It is done to produce something external to the culture that surrounds them, although they also freely sample from mainstream culture in order to make sense of life. Despite all of this, the main force propelling the story forward is Paul’s fate, always hanging in the balance. The secondary material that helps to complete the work is very fine but the author never loses track of the book’s main thread. This is a work of rare beauty and the authors are people of rare talents.

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