It’s very interesting to read a book where the main character is in denial. Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor is set in the early 90s in America, which any student of queer history knows is within the shadow the AIDs crisis. But while Paul Polydoris – a fitting name for a shapeshifting protagonist – fucks his way through the story, the impact of AIDS is a ghost in the background. It isn’t until towards the end of the novel that you realise what he hasn’t been saying, and compassion wells inside you. What a time it must have been to be young and gay, how hard it must have been to be living in that shadow. No wonder Paul runs. Who wouldn’t?
Although, obviously, Paul Takes The Form of a Mortal Girl is a work of fiction, it’s very much grounded in reality. Using his shape-shifting abilities Paul volunteers at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival – which has almost taken on a mythical status amongst queers of my generation (those born in the 90s) for its strict second-wave and trans-exclusionary policies. There he falls in love with a woman, offering a fascinating insight into male bisexuality and the conflicts that trans and gender-conforming folk sometimes experience.
The book is both a time capsule, with Walkmans and literal mix-tapes, payphones and Pac-Man, and an incredibly contemporary tale of how it feels to be queer. There’s the vegan politics and the protest marches, the bookshops and the leather bars, and a sense of ‘well some things never change’. At one point Lawlor writes; “It was June and like everyone else Paul made himself extremely busy going to queer art openings and queer punk shows and queer spoken word showcases and queer evenings of performance art. He was exhausted and broke from being queer.” Which is definitely a mood I empathise with.
The novel is also comfortingly philosophical. There’s an acid induced pontification on the radical and sublime queerness that occurs when female singers cover songs written by straight men without changing the pronouns involved, with explicit reference to Joan Baez singing ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ and The Slit’s cover of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ amongst many others. The pressure to get an undergraduate degree in art history or literature, with a specialisation in queer theory, seems to constantly weigh on Paul – as his friends ‘level up’ around him.
Overall it’s a great read. Thoughtful, very smutty, and with just enough emotional heft to leave it lingering in your mind long after you’ve finished reading.
Or at least those are my thoughts! Come along to Marwicks Vegan Cafe in Dundee on 16 December from 7 – 8.30pm for the next meeting of Dundee Queer Book Club and join in the discussion. Buy it for £13.19 at guardianbookshop.com/paul-takes-the-form-of-a-mortal-girl.
Words: Ana Hine
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