Funny, insightful, and often quite charming, Andrea Lawlor’s PAUL TAKES THE FORM OF A MORTAL GIRL comes as a pleasant surprise. The novel follows the life of twenty-two year old queer shapeshifter Paul, who can change his shape from male to female and back again at will. It’s a clever and effective allegory for trans and non-binary experiences, but it also works very well as a character trait. Paul, like many twenty-somethings, is full of outward confidence but lacks true self-esteem; he is constantly looking for outside validation through being an object of attraction and uses his shapeshifting abilities to get it. He wonders if there are others like him out there or if he is unique in the world, and what it would mean if either of those are true.
There isn’t much in the way of plot per se as we read about Paul’s relationships and his travels to different parts of the country, but I found the characters always interesting and there was a lot of sex to keep my attention. I don’t mean that reductively or as an exaggeration. There is A LOT of sex in this book — straight sex, gay sex, lesbian sex — and to Lawlor’s credit it’s a very sex-positive novel. (Although not all the sex is presented as sexy; a hurried blowjob in a dirty alley is presented just as unenticingly as you think it would be.) The author evokes the world of 1993 perfectly, and at times takes a fanciful approach to their subject, intoning certain mythically evocative names, interspersing versions of Paul’s backstory in the form of folklore and legend, all to great and sometimes even profound effect.
Although I found myself wishing for a slightly stronger ending, the ending Lawlor gives us is certainly the right one. I can’t recommend this novel highly enough to anyone interested in queer fiction, or literary fiction that’s laced with and informed by the fantastic. Lawlor studied under Samuel R. Delany, and it shows in both their talent and imagination. (And their graphic depictions of sex! Seriously, if you don’t like reading about sex, this is not the book for you!) I look forward to seeing what else Lawlor writes in the future.