A Review of Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl

Format: 354 pp., paperback; Size:5.5″x7.5″; Price:$18; Publisher: Rescue Press; Typeface: Garamond; Book design: Sevy Perez; Mixtapes: One; Sex scenes: Twenty; Representative sentence: “Paul tried for a smile, a look back, an eyeful, a number, some illicit hallway kiss, a blowjob, a romance, a massage, a handjob, a finger up an ass, a free show, a licked lip, a passed note, a present, a surprise, something good, something better than the nothing he had.”

Central Question: Why revisit the queer 90s in 2018?

Except for Titanic and Spice Girls-branded bubblegum, I don’t remember the 90s. Any documents from and about the decade I approach with a scavenging reflex, assembling a kind of pell-mell cultural sensibility in retrospect. Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (Rescue Press, 2017) is about a similar backwards glance, the projective attachments that the novel’s titular Paul brings to the plenitude of culture that surrounds him.

The year’s 1993, the place Iowa City, and the star’s a young 20-something with a voracious appetite. Paul’s secret is he’s a shapeshifter. [1] From Iowa City to Michigan, Provincetown, and San Francisco, he traverses gay and lesbian milieux with a range of embodiments and appetites. “He was an omnivore,” Lawlor writes, “an orange-hankey flagger, an aficionado of all-you-can-eat buffets.” He buses to Chicago to get reamed by a barman with a Tom of Finland package, he shacks up in lesbian puppy love with a vegan Provincetown dyke. Paul’s as avid a participant in late-20th century sexual subcultures as he is a consumer of the music, film, and writing they produced. The result is a headily pornographic historical novel whose quarter-century retrospective doubles as a bracing engagement with just so many cultural events: riot grrl, New Queer Cinema, Chip Delany, check, check, check.

This movement between narrative and retrospection allows Lawlor to glide between the poles of text and metatext, as Robert Glück defined these categories. “The text is the narrative,” Glück writes, while “the metatext is a running analysis, its point of view based on the future.” Metatext “includes the reader, it asks questions, asks for critical response, makes claims on the reader, elicits commitments.” Lawlor entices you to follow Paul’s pornographic adventures from the standpoint of the future, a readerly activity primed to ask questions about historical outcomes and political urgency.

With Lawlor’s novel, Paul is both a character and the name for a textual effect. These two capacities align roughly with text and metatext respectively. Lawlor’s epigraph, from Gertrude Stein’s “Poetry and Grammar,” advises that “people if you like to believe it can be made by their names. Call anybody Paul and they get to be a Paul.” The content of the novel is gender fluidity itself, in a fabulist contortion of its material limit: in a space of mere pages Paul flits from riot grrl bottom jonesing for a touring guitarist and her strap-on to campy theory fag who blows a closeted visiting prof in his car. Then on to a leather bar backroom for a macho tryst worthy of John Rechy’s gay urban noir. And so on. If Paul the character charts a narrative arc of various pleasures, Paul the textual device is just the name for a slippage between these differentiated social scenes, synchronically united.


“Call anybody Paul and they get to be a Paul.” From the start this slogan marshals an emphatic anti-essentialism, introducing a neat overlap between the book’s content and its period—the heyday of the direct action group Queer Nation; the height of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S.; the emergence of that strange academic institution called queer theory, with its attendant slogans of subversion and destabilization. Since the period that Paul confronts, “queer” has become the byword for the collation of distinct and asymmetrical, if related, political ontologies organized around gender and sexuality, LGBT people by another name. Lawlor offers a strategic reappraisal of the cultural, literary and theoretical canons that have encrusted this label to the point of obscuring its provisional and strategic character.

If “queer” spoken in 2018 more often than not just names an indeterminate sexual difference, that’s in large part the effect of the canonization of queer theory, the body of work constellated around Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Warner, and Judith Butler, among others. And sure enough, the optic Butler introduced in her 1990 Gender Trouble has dominated Paul‘s critical reception to date. Butler’s famous demonstration is to disclose the fictive basis of the most would-be ontological gendered facts. She writes: “That gender reality is created through sustained social performances means that the very notions of an essential sex and a true or abiding masculinity or femininity are also constituted as part of the strategy that conceals gender’s performative character.” In other words, Butler inverts the apparent priority of sex over gender: the signification of the body is just as socially produced as gender itself. This thesis gives way to an ethic of destabilization—a proliferation of gender and sexual difference, a continual parody that recuperates gendered play as political insurrection.

What’s striking is Paul Takes the Form does, after all, traverse a similar territory to a then-emergent queer theory and its idealized aesthetics of gender fluidity. But it’s relegated to a satirized position in the sophistic research of Paul’s friend Jane, a grad student and academic foil to his willful sexploits: “Bs! She decided to write a paper in which she only used theorists whose last name began with B: Bersani, Bakhtin, Butler, Lauren Berlant. Ooh, and Barthes. Yes! She needed another latte.” Lawlor’s satire digests and metabolizes a monoglyphic alphabet soup, incorporating queer theory into Paul in, Lawlor intimates, a minor capacity. There’s more urgent stuff to deal with—sex, for instance!

That may feel like a flippant gloss on political urgency, so let me try this again. Paul’s slippages into and across sexual and gender configurations make a running leap towards plenitude, that fruition of multiple desires and their satisfactions outside and against the trans- and homophobic nuclear family. But Paul’s narration requires you to accompany him with a mix of familiarity, satire, and surprise, an enthusiastic learning of sympathy with Paul’s social milieu of a moment, even with its distortions and excesses. [2] Paul’s trajectory transforms diachrony into synchrony: first one thing, then another, till you get a sense of how it all coheres. His cruising presents a deliciously perverse twist on Georg Lukács’s category of the aspiration to totality, a literary work’s attempt to render a sense of the social as a combined and oppositional whole.

Meanwhile, Paul’s series of embodiments and desires proposes a formal analogue of solidarity across these various standpoints. Paul spells out a critical suggestion of QUEERS READ THIS, a pamphlet distributed at the New York Pride March in 1990 and a kind of Ur-text for a then-unorthodox name: “When spoken to other gays and lesbians [queer] is a way of suggesting we close ranks, and forget (temporarily) our individual differences because we face a more insidious common enemy.” In other words, a provisional solidarity that bridges sexual and gender formations through shared antagonisms against the exclusions and violences of trans- and homophobic social institutions (police, prisons, doctors, governments, families). The formal effect of Paul’s transformations militates against “queer” as the aestheticized name for indeterminate difference in favor of this solidaristic imagination.

In that context, Paul’s desires turn out to be capacious, not unlimited: the few heterosexual encounters the book relates aren’t easily assimilable to straight culture. “Only after I came out as a gay man did I have good sex with women,” Glück wrote in his 2003 collection Denny Smith. For Glück gay identity isn’t an exclusive delimitation of eroticism—this object, not that one—so much as a standpoint that evokes both desire and solidarity—with other queers against the homophobic institution of the family, with women against misogynistic abjection. So too with Paul, whose sexual curiosity leads him to hook up with girls in his boy body, but “what he shared with the gay men he met later was the claustrophobia of doing what everyone else did. … Heterosexuality = marriage = death, Paul knew.” Lawlor’s equals sign riff on the ACT UP slogan SILENCE = DEATH, equivocating between governmental neglect of people with AIDS and the straight ideologeme of the family in the shared term of their homophobic antipathy.

So Paul’s recent Lambda Literary nod for bisexual fiction seems appropriate, with the proviso that its bisexuality is just the cumulative effect of Paul’s shifts between cultures of desire, rather than a fixed position. The effect is similar to Lawlor’s exploration of gender fluidity, a materialist inversion of the platitudes that so often enclose it: versus the nebulous invocation of multiple simultaneous desires, Paul’s a serial participant in multiple sexual cultures. The stakes of this inversion could be seen, at least in part, as an articulation of transsexual desires alongside gay and lesbian subcultures. This articulation isn’t entirely straightforward: Paul encounters trans people in San Francisco, his coworkers Silver and Franky, and hesitantly asserts a sympathetic difference from them. But I think Lawlor gets that the dimension of concrete shifts in identity—however contingent and provisional—is duration. That’s a particularly trans lesson, one you know if you’ve awkwardly, laboriously readjusted the social and sexual contexts of your life through transition. Nor is it too much of a reach to say that trans people have a particular stake in the reevaluation that Lawlor encourages of late-20th century queer canons, their multiple and contradictory legacies, their frequently shabby theorizations of our lives.

Now, this reading is all very militant, isn’t it? I’ve been looking for solidarities that the narrative itself leaves immanent. Paul the character isn’t especially political, except by way of romantic attachment: a reluctant animal rights activist to please his crunchy girlfriend Diane, a slightly more enthused participant in ACT UP meetings and Pink Panther patrols alongside Tony Pinto, the paramour of his adolescence. Paul’s concerns with sexual liberation and opposition to the nuclear family form largely align with the purview of Queer Nation, for better and worse, and which Cathy J. Cohen incisively critiqued in 1997 for its failure to work solidaristically in terms of anti-racist and anti-capitalist commitments. At heart, Paul’s an aesthete: “You needed a phone to get a job, so you actually needed an apartment to get a phone to get a job, so the apartment was first, but you needed a job to get the apartment. Paul felt an incisive critique of capitalism coming on and ordered an expensive latte as a distraction.” Another latte, another gentle satire, but the political energy stirred up by sheer exigency peters out all the same.

Or does it? Above I suggested that Paul in his metatextual capacity as a narrative effect opens up the novel to the readerly activities of interpretation, critique, and political commitment. “Text-metatext takes its form from the dialectical cleft between real life and life as it wants to be,” Glück writes. Aestheticism can have its militant underside after all, pointing to “life as it wants to be” under the sign of the sensual. In Paul’s relentless cruising we get a sense of the multiform pleasures that can obtain at the level of urban space, arenas of desire threatened by skyrocketing rents and broken windows policing. That’s just one pressure point for solidaristic struggle between queers and working-class communities of color, one that resonates with Tithi Bhattacharya’s insistence that “the demand by [working class] communities to extend their ‘sphere of pleasure’ is a vital class demand.” We can do worse to think the vexed allegiances of the present than through Paul’shedonic propulsion.

  • [1]Lawlor consistently refers to Paul with masculine pronouns, in my guess a purely textual constant—Lawlor’s novel militates against gender essentialism throughout—that also avoids the anachronism of the singular they, which only in the past decade gained its specific currency as the marker of genderqueer, fluid or non-binary identity. ↩
  • [2]
    The novel’s second act plays out at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, infamous and recently shuttered over its excluding trans women; Lawlor approaches MichFest with equal parts satire and earnestness, an ambivalence that seems adequate to its complicated but ultimately untenable project. ↩
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