I want to ride a dragon

Elisa Gabbert

  • Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
    Picador, 341 pp, £14.99, April, ISBN 978 1 5290 0766 4

Ranma, the protagonist of the manga comic Ranma ½, changes sex when she/he comes into contact with water. It’s the result of a curse – a journey to China, a haunted spring – but it’s also sometimes useful. The story was made into an anime series in 1989 and I found the first episode, dubbed in English, on YouTube. Ranma, in the form of a teenage girl, visits an old friend of her father’s, who knew her as a boy. He hugs the child – who he hopes will marry one of his three daughters – and is surprised by how squishy ‘he’ is. We zoom in on Ranma’s breasts, which one of the daughters pokes with her finger. Definitely a girl. But after a quick judo match with Akane, the youngest daughter, Ranma takes a bath and emerges as a boy, breasts replaced with pecs. Akane walks into the bathhouse naked, sees Ranma and screams. He hangs his head: ‘Sorry about this.’

Paul Polydoris, the protagonist of Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, can change sex whenever he wants, with no magical springs necessary. In the novel’s first scene, he gets dressed to go and see ‘a dyke punk band’ at a bar in the college town of Iowa City. It is the mid-1990s, the band is from Seattle, and he borrows a sparkly tank top from his roommate Christopher. He shuts the door so Christopher won’t ‘see him change’.

First he needed good underwear. He decided to break out the unopened European-style briefs his old sociology professor had inappropriately brought him back from Spain last summer. They looked enough like girls’ underwear and wouldn’t disrupt the line. He dropped his swishy loose army pants and his shoplifted French-cut boxers, and stared at his penis until it shrank, tucked itself into the tight little crawlspace of his former balls. He stepped into the black briefs and admired his smooth front with his hands and eyes, then found the red lace bra he’d borrowed from that girl in New York. His skin shivered all over, belly and back and thighs. He stared down his skinny chest until it obediently softened, grew, filled out the bra. Not too big. It was like that TV show Manimal where the guy changed into a panther and other animals, a miracle of special effects, only that guy couldn’t control himself. That guy was more like the Hulk. Not Paul. Paul stopped at a 36C.

He becomes ‘the girl he wanted to fuck’. Now the frat boys who usually bully him call out: ‘Hey sweetheart, where are you going?’ When he sees his friend Jane at the club, he introduces himself as Polly (Polly as in polyamorous; Polly as in polymorphous perversity). Jane assumes the costume is only external: ‘OK, Paul … you look amazing, by the way. It’s actually uncanny.’ He heads to the bathroom ‘with his exciting new vagina’ and wonders if he’s a feminist.

Paul’s switching isn’t binary, like Ranma’s, an all-or-nothing female/male. He can butch up or femme out. He can make himself a little taller, make his cock or his breasts a little bigger. In one episode – you could call the novel a queer picaresque – he decides ‘to see what leather guys did with other leather guys’. He starts by building himself ‘into a taller, more muscled and slightly hairier version of himself’, then strides up to the bar with his newfound swagger, chugs a beer and crushes the can ‘in one hand’. In another episode, he wants to see what ‘normal straight people’ do when no one is looking. He becomes a sorority girl in a miniskirt, platform shoes and ‘cleavagey’ top. Two bro types, a Dave and a Dan, race to order her a drink. In this hetero role, Polly has hetero feelings: ‘He weirdly loved these guys.’ He lets Dave ply him with shots, order him around and pressure him into a blow job in the alley – questionable consent, it seems, is part of the ‘normal straight people’ experience. The sex is gross, but the box is ticked; Paul wants to try everything.

Like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl initially seems relatively conventional: its protagonist is a non-realist semi-superhero, yes, but he moves through an otherwise realist world. About thirty pages in, however, the novel seems to look at the camera and wink. Paul goes to his film theory class and accepts a tab of acid from a ‘skater boy’ classmate called Dallas. At Dallas’s apartment, they listen to CDs and Paul suddenly launches into a lecture on the aesthetics of cover songs that ‘fuck with gender – like a woman singing lyrics by a man’. Paul has so far spoken in brief, simple sentences; now, fired up, he is freestyling with theory, speaking in parentheticals:

Some covers deliver the age-old simple pleasures of drag – knowledge, the opportunity to investigate the simulacra and make comparisons, that obscure little frisson of dissonance. Take Joan Baez singing ‘Virgil Kane is my name … like my father before me, I’m a working man’ (which, of course, is originally from the Band’s ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’) or Cait O’Riordan from the Pogues crooning, ‘My name is Jock Stewart, I’m a canny gun man’ (from the traditional ‘I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day’). Joan Baez’s contralto can, if you squint your ears, pass as a farm-boy tenor; Cait O’Riordan’s chalky delivery might be that of a rich ponce.

Their trip is a narrative device that lets the novel get trippy. It’s now a critical text analysing itself. When Paul notes that ‘hip hop uses samples as material from which to make art, whereas rock uses covers to foreground identity, performance itself the art,’ we remember this is itself a cover novel, a version of Orlando. Paul takes advantage of the trip to go intersex, giving himself breasts and shrinking his penis into a ‘very small erection’. By the next morning he isn’t sure what happened, what is real: he has superpowers but he’s not sure how far they go.

I’m reasonably good at lucid dreaming – at recognising that I’m dreaming, that nothing is at stake – but I have limited control over what happens in the dream. The terms of the dreamworld seem to be set before I notice it’s a dream, so I can operate freely within those terms, but I can’t just say: ‘Forget all this, now I want to ride a dragon.’ Paul’s life is like a lucid dream. He can’t control everything – he’s often broke, and though he’s very pretty he can’t always get the attention of those he’s attracted to – but he can make things more interesting. He can live as though he’s writing his own fan fiction.

‘I tried outlining, tried to understand three-act structure, tried to impose a plot,’ Lawlor said in an interview last year, ‘but kept coming back to my sense that I just needed to follow Paul, that my structure was going to have to be a little queer as well … I realised my reluctance had to do with my understanding of how people change, how I’ve changed – really slowly, recursively, making the same mistakes over and over.’ This episodic structure brings with it a strange sense of voyeurism: it’s as though Lawlor were not Paul’s creator but his reality TV producer, able to observe him and nudge him, but not fully to control him. The question of what Paul really is is pleasantly undecidable. He eventually lets his friend Jane in on his secret, and after he accompanies her to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival – a real-life festival described by its founder as being only for ‘womyn-born womyn’ – maintains his female form for weeks at a time. (The MWMF’s organisers were accused of transphobia, and the festival was closed in 2015 amid boycotts.) At the festival, Paul-as-Polly meets a tall, beautiful woman with ‘a tomboy grace’ called Diane. They go and see bands together (‘People crowded in from all sides, cosily, and Paul realised – again – they were all women. They were all women, except him, including him’); they have sex in the woods. When it’s time to go home, Jane marvels that Paul has become ‘an earnest, monogamous lesbian’. Paul makes a mixtape for Diane, and thinks about the art of musicological collage, the ‘desire to accumulate and then display’, on the ethics of the mixtape – is it OK to ‘copy a song … from a mixtape someone else had made you?’ Then Diane shows up in Iowa City, angry – Jane, perhaps out of jealousy, has told her Paul’s secret. If Paul is not Polly, their love is just a conventional heterosexual relationship in disguise. ‘You’re a liar … you knew I wouldn’t want to be with a man.’ The accusation is baffling to Paul. ‘I didn’t fucking lie … Plus I don’t know what I am – so how is that lying? I mean, I’m obviously not some man.’ They spend the night together. In the morning, Paul is in lovey-dovey girlfriend mode and Diane tells him that ‘you smell like a girl all the time. You didn’t smell like a boy before. You can’t fake pheromones. I think you’re really female … did you always know you were a girl?’ The novel breaks off into a Joe Brainard-esque reverie:

Paul remembered Stanley’s department store downtown, buying the smallest bottle of Chanel No. 5 with his snow-shovelling money one year, ‘for my mother’.

Paul remembered how he kept the bottle in the stomach of his Trojan horse bank, taking it out only if no one else was home …

Paul remembered the time he had sex with Heather Federson, how jealous he was she got to feel a dick inside her.

The prose has gone into poetry drag. Like Maggie Nelson or Carmen Maria Machado, Lawlor is interested in blending styles and genres – or, perhaps more accurately, refuses to be confined by genre boundaries.

As Polly, Paul does things Paul wouldn’t do; he cries easily, for example. He feels things Paul wouldn’t feel: ‘A flutter of shyness … girl-feelings. Weird.’ Midway through Orlando, Woolf writes that her protagonist ‘was becoming a little more modest, as women are, of her brains, and a little more vain, as women are, of her person’. This can partly be attributed to fashion: ‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.’ Polly’s clothes and altered body do the same kind of work, femming him inside and out, just as calling himself Polly casts a spell. (The novel’s epigraph is from Gertrude Stein: ‘Call anybody Paul and they get to be a Paul.’) During this stretch of the book, we may start to think, as Paul does, that he’s really, ‘like, chemically or something’, a woman – that he’ll settle in a true, final state. He follows Diane to Provincetown but she breaks his heart (‘You want to be everything, all the time … I just want a girlfriend’), and he goes back to being a guy and moves to San Francisco. The novel keeps changing just as Paul keeps changing, trying one form and then another, on a quest for narrative experience that mirrors his quest for sexual experience, for sex as novelty (‘What was sex but newness?’). Pleasure is important in this world – Paul’s world, Lawlor’s world, our world – pleasure as a radical end in itself. But Paul seeks love too, or if not love in a traditional form, then the transformative connection that suspends our native loneliness.

For a cishet reader like me, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl offers an education in gay experience in the 1990s – full of lore, zines and raves – but it’s not preachy or didactic; there are no sneaky lessons, or if there are, they’re so sneaky I barely noticed them. When Paul finds out that his first boyfriend has died of Aids – Paul has been ignoring his phone calls for weeks – he’s in the middle of a bender that has included oral sex with a random ‘dirty hippie’ in a park. He stays drunk for another day or two. If there is any karmic punishment for this or other bad decisions – if a whim can be called a decision – it’s not in the novel. He has a boyfriend for a while, but gets bored. He meets a nymph-like youth called Robin who turns out to be like him, whatever he is, a polymorphous creature of myth. Could it be that Paul isn’t alone, ‘a freak’ even among queers? He yearns after Robin, but Robin just wants to be friends. The novel ends in medias res, without triumph or tragedy, only further possibility, as Paul takes a walk through the city, the city as ‘various as himself’.