I'm friendly with Andrea Lawlor, having gotten to know them because they made one of my all-time favorite zines, Judy! I'd forgotten until I read Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl that theyd' made another zine, Persephone, which is about Greek myths. Paul, too, is full of magic, but also the queer, intersectional feminist goodness and humor that make me love Judy!
The eponymous Paul is a queer college student, sexed up to make me blush, who has the ability to change his gender expression. His sex? He can grow breasts, turn his penis into a clitoris, and make other changes, as well, so that he can have muscles that will be alluring in a leather bar or enter the woman-born-woman Michigan Womyn's Music Festival as "Polly" and attract hot butches.
We meet Paul in Iowa City in 1993. He lives with another gay man, Christopher, and his best friend is Jane, a lesbian. The story visits Paul in NYC, Provincetown, San Francisco, and Troy, where he was raised. I don't want to give too much away, so I'm going to turn to the pages I dogeared for y'all's benefit.
First--normally I don't care for epigraphs, but Andrea's (from Gertrude Stein's "Poetry and Grammar") is the perfect introduction:
People if you like to believe it can be made by their names. Call anybody Paul and they get to be Paul...
Paul is so embedded in queer culture that his observations about heterosexuals are anthropological.
He liked the writer's books; they weren't clever, but offered man realness, the authenticity of the sensitive country boy, a view inside the inscrutable straight-guy mind--unexpected, like a talking dog.
LOL. Also, spoiler, "the writer" isn't entirely straight.
Paul also attends a party as a straight girl, to further his research. Spoiler: it doesn't go all that well. Despite his interest in heteroculture, when a fellow queer bookstore worker suggest Paul read Ted Berrigan, he says "Cool," but what he's really thinking is that he doesn't "have time to read straight poets." That's how I feel about reading men. I'm sure lots of them are great writers, but who has the time???
There's a passage where Paul is on windowpane and goes off on an extended lecture about genderfucking cover songs. I want to make a playlist out of it.
"Who can hear Marianne Faithfull singing 'As Tears Go By' without thinking of her also inhabiting Mick Jagger's louche hip-first lean, or Belly's 'It's Not Unusual' without an amusing vision of Tom Jones's beefy confused face?"
It goes on like that for five epic pages!
At one point Paul recounts his gay history, and at the top of the list is discovering the call number HQ76 in college. I could love Paul for that tidbit alone!
You can tell from the beginning that Andrea is a poet, as well as a prose writer. Their descriptions and imagery are sharp, like when they compare a "fat femme burlesque and old-time drag performance" to eating a "flourless chocolate cake of glamour."
I feel like I should unpack the symbolism, allegories, and I don't know what all, but I'll save that for more literary reviewers, and just say that Paul is the whole package (pun!). My only complaint is that I had to put on readers to make out the ISBN. Otherwise, beautiful book production, Rescue Press!
Finally, the acknowledgments includes thank yous to a number of librarians, but also a blanket "Thank you to all independent booksellers and libarians everywhere!" Pandering, but effective. ;)