Trans and Transient

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl BY Andrea Lawlor. Rescue Press. Paperback, 240 pages. $18.

The cover of Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl

A postulate: Queer writers do twentieth-century picaresque uniquely well. The picaro figure was, after all, a rogue, originally: slippery, necessarily on the move and on the make, situationally criminal, effectively fugitive. More or less the situation of lots of LGBT people reading the signs and crafting a life outside of compulsory (cis) heterosexuality in the US in, say, 1992, which is when twenty-first-century queer writer Andrea Lawlor sets their new novel, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. Ideally, in picaresque fiction, the resourceful hero’s attributes, those suited to navigating the margins of society, will seem to determine the genre’s form: episodic, restless, excursive rather than recursive, full of incidental portraits, uninterested in quest, advancing by encounter, forgoing closure. From Jane Bowles to Tom Spanbauer to Michelle Tea (and, if auto-fiction can be picaresque, Denton Welch to Samuel Delany to Laurie Weeks), the lives they invent or chronicle don’t come to a point, they just run on. Because such a story is firmly centered on its protagonist, it works when the character has style, which provides lubrication at passages into and through the demimonde. Style, as in how they present, or in how they process their surroundings. By that description, two hetero exceptions come to mind: Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree and Edward Dahlberg’s Because I Was Flesh, both of which follow princely and itinerant outcasts. Lawlor’s Paul (aka Polly) Polydoris is in that company—exquisitely transient, and also trans.

When we meet him, Paul is maybe dropping out of college, showing up only to the most combustive critical-theory electives; he has a shift at the thrift store and tends bar, and in time he’ll be a housepainter and a bookstore clerk. But career is not the line by which to follow Paul or his plot. And if it were, it’d be better to say he is a writer and publisher, since his zine, Polydoris Perversity, has been written up in Factsheet Five (not that he pursues that regularly, either, despite the stack of subscriber SASEs that pile up, along with the jotted-down phone messages his many housemates leave him). No, Paul’s desultory course is drawn by desire and occasionally love, or else heartbreak, and it carries him into the coast-to-coast catchments of queer life. In fact, a principal pleasure here is the breezy but exacting depiction of off-season Provincetown, pre—Giuliani New York, Boystown Chicago, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and San Francisco—three of which are given a full act of this story.

It should be said, before more is divulged, that a picaresque to fit the particular circumstances of the queer grid of that era is genius. Because to be young, bright, broke, and in play then was continually to be reminded how breakneck sudden and also instantly reversible one’s transit could be from subsistent office temping and velvet-rope-peripheral anonymity to starring as the center of attention at extravagant and louche soirees with A-gay Dionysians. And a hero like Paul, twenty-two, fresh to all of it, in order to optimize chances and minimize comeuppances, would need to be what he is foremost: a quick study. He gets social dynamics and recognizes types, and so finds his bearings resiliently, reconstituting as the type he is expected to be, or as the type he can get away with being, as fits his immediate wishes: contrariness, revolt, acceptance, or, most often, sex. I’ll get to sex in a moment, but perhaps more illustrative is a passage where he’s doing contrariness. About midway through the novel, on a flight seated next to a “business-looking man” in pleated pants, “Paul stripped down to his Nobody Knows I’m a Lesbian Psycho Killer tee shirt and read with aggressive spaciousness his copy of Bimbox, a queer Canadian zine which advocated, through collage, violence toward businessmen.”

The novel actually opens in the country’s middle, Iowa City, wintertime, where Paul is dressing for the night—a “dyke punk band” is in town from Seattle. When he leaves the apartment, he has “clumsily applied silvery pale-pink lipstick” and “raked black mascara through his lashes,” and “his black engineer boots and snug Levi’s jacket” and “big fur-lined Lenny Kravitz coat” are just right for the occasion. Self-presentation, as I’ve suggested, is a specialty for Paul, who wants what he wants that night, and it works. A few pages later, in the first of four quick sex scenes, notable for their variety and excellent for their sensory exactness, he is upstairs at a party with the band’s guitarist after the show: “I am being penetrated by punk, he thought as she thrust into him, pushing his legs apart, collapsing onto him . . . pistoning. . . . Inside Paul something tight released: a rusted nut turned finally around its old bolt.” Alternately racy and awkward, perilous and perfunctory, a pair of scenes in a busy bathroom and then in a parked car in the cemetery follow that episode, but neither subsequent partner—the girlfriend of a local celebrity and a tweed-jacketed Visiting Writer—is as entirely turned around as a kid in his film-theory class who, while watching Pink Flamingos in the Comm Studies building, “kicked his extra-long legs out so his checker-board Vans hit Paul’s boot,” a flirtation that leads back to a dingy efficiency where Paul guides the boy through an encounter that he can only construe as a special effect of the acid they dropped.

I lived in Iowa City last year, twenty-five winters after Paul, and it’s hard not to marvel at its depiction as a sexy place—driveway games of Cornhole and Solo cups of beer predominate now, terrible fiberglass Hawkeye statues everywhere—but as in much of Middle America, queerness still has a surging way of flashing its wattage so that fleetingly you see a whole circuit belying the dull gray surface. Nothing is more warming than that recognition; Paul lives on it, plays it like an instrument, bending the notes. A vision of belonging shows through Paul’s urges and impulses, and there are three relationships—rather neatly past, present, and future—that call to him in quieted moments: a lost boyhood love with Tony, whom he has been avoiding, a lesbian love affair with Diane, and a very nearly spectral and ultimately specular infatuation with a youth Paul spots at various nodes on his journey.

OK, so it’s only after Paul leaves Iowa, when he falls in with Diane, his fellow
carrot-peeler on kitchen duty at the Womyn’s Music Festival, no men allowed, that I finally appreciated the extent of what is special about Paul’s gift for self-presentation, and about Andrea Lawlor’s gift for exploiting reader expectation within the realism the author has fastidiously built. There is a remarkable way in which the reader becomes part of the project—different readers in different ways, I suspect. When I reread the first hundred pages, including the scenes I’ve recounted, about Paul’s transformation to go out for the night and the sexual encounters, I find clear, graphic, descriptive language that means now what it didn’t mean to me the first time I read it. I discover that I had unconsciously translated explicit descriptions of Paul’s body into the existing familiarity and knowledge I had. But Paul isn’t intersex, or at least that nomenclature is insufficient; and “trans” is accurate only insofar as Paul feels “body of origin,” Diane’s shorthand coinage, to be appropriate. Certain understandings about our bodies that one might import—understanding that, say, the clitoris and the penis are homologous and materially identical—are useful to the reader of this heightened naturalism, but not as useful as a feel for what (and where, if anyplace) the body feels. Have you gaped, or bloomed, or throbbed, or shrunk or contracted or plumped, in states of anticipation or arousal? Paul has too. There is a moment in this book when as a reader I concentrate hard on the verb “concentrates,” which is how Paul summarizes what he does to be with Diane in the way she presumes him to be, when day after day they find a clearing in the woods away from the other campers and make love. He too has fantasized about holding nothing back from a lover.

While I’m mincing words as bluntly as possible, averting, I hope, both spoilers and prurience, I’ll offer that it cannot be overstated how out-of-place, how ruinous and wrong to the spirit of the book would be any reference to Tiresias, any inference even. It’s not that book. Polydoris, I take it, is legible for its apparent suggestion of Greek mythology, and since Paul himself has incomplete knowledge of his parentage in Troy (New York), and only distant memories of running free on the beach where his grandparents lived, in a Cypriot city called Paphos, Ovidian accounts beyond Paul’s own understanding might be available. But more prominent and more satisfying is what emerges from the book’s other realm that is beyond Paul’s ken—dark and lovely fairy-tale interludes occasionally highjack the novel, telling the odd quick story of, for example, a bachelor fisherman and his turn of fortune, a contractor and his wife who have tried in vain to have a baby, and a bookkeeper and his wife and twins who “had little to eat and no basic cable.” They each carry the novel (and spread a sort of answer) over a strain of cognitive dissonance that from time to time puts Paul at an impasse, including after an ugly bit of bullying, when a group of kids on a bus demand of him plainly: “What are you?” Think of the narcoleptic episodes and flickery fantasies in My Own Private Idaho that overtake River Phoenix’s picaro character when he cannot otherwise cope with the trauma of his erased self-understanding.

It was in 1992 that I first learned the term picaresque, in reference to Moll Flanders, the “Newgate bird” drifting after prison from one travail to another, compromised but crafty. A tedious book to a nineteen-year-old. It was also the year I came out. I thought nonstop about a boy whose mailbox was always full of SASEs for copies of his zine. The world I was dropping into is present in Paul Takes the Form in ways I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in fiction: in the sound of flipping tapes in their bin at the record store, in the gluey blue burst of Freshen-Up gum, in queercore zines in Factsheet Five, in Fluevogs on Peter Pan bus rides in the Northeast Corridor, in the parlance before “chicken” was “twink,” in the HQ76 stacks of university libraries. To me, it feels restorative. Interesting that none of the events or phenomena by which history remembers 1992 are apparent here. No Bush, no Clinton. Is it that Paul’s story is too underground? Is it that the underground then really was alien to the dominant paradigm, before drop-down menus and iFreedoms of the internet, when status update came by answering-machine message? Ah—therein is the one exception. The epidemic. The phone messages Paul’s housemates have been writing out for him before erasing the tape—the calls were coming from a hospital room at St. Vincent’s.

Brian Blanchfield is the author of Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat Books, 2016).