I wasn’t supposed to be alone that day.
I’d been invited to the Brooklyn Book Festival by some people I knew from high school. It was meant to be a big gay reunion — recently out queers who’d survived the same suburb coming together to catch up and celebrate. But one of them broke their leg. And I didn’t get the text until I was already there.
I wasn’t supposed to be alone that day because I was rarely alone those days. My girlfriend and I had been together for three years and had slipped into total codependence. My middle name had become “and,” my last name her first. We were one entity and I found comfort in only having to be half a person. I’d been out of the closet for less than two years and even half a life was hard enough.
But the part of me that itched for solitude, for freedom, for stories, decided to stay and I made my way to the panel titled “Building Queer Legacies.” Most of the crowd was there for the straight cis woman whose book would go on to be a Pulitzer finalist and win the Stonewall Book Award. Some literary gays were there for Alexander Chee who was discussing his remarkable How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. I soon realized I was there for the third author, Andrea Lawlor, who I’d never heard of before.
The moderator asked the three authors what their books were about beyond queerness. The straight lady gave an answer long enough to suggest her book wasn’t about queerness at all. Alexander Chee gave a brief but thoughtful reply. And Andrea Lawlor said nothing. Literally. “Nothing. My book is just about queerness.”
I left that day with five books including Chee’s and Lawlor’s. Maybe that answer is why I decided to start with Lawlor’s. Or maybe we just read books when we’re meant to read them. Whether coincidence or fate, Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl would change my life. Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl would make me a slut.
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is about a shapeshifter named Paul who fucks his way through the gay 90s. His body and gender are ever-changing, but what remains fairly consistent is that when he’s a guy he fucks guys and when he’s a girl he fucks girls. Trans people love to joke about having been every letter of the acronym but Paul is all of them at once. He is the ultimate non-binary fantasy — or at least my ultimate non-binary fantasy.
“Like a shark Paul had to keep moving,” the book begins. “He slept only when necessary. He had business with the world, codes to crack, so many questions. Tonight, for example, Paul needed to know what fucking was like for girls.”
Soon he’s growing tits and turning his dick into a clit and by page 17 he is already, and I quote, “very, very, very wet.”
This is a book filled with sex scenes that will make your jaw clench and your thighs quiver. It’s also a book that understands how for many people sex is not just about pleasure and connection and chaos — it’s about community.
Paul’s sex drive is as much a bus token into queer culture as his shapeshifting. Whether he’s having sex in the grass at Michfest or cruising in P-town, fucking is how Paul defines his queerness, relates to others, and explores the world.
When I first read this book in 2018, I felt a connection unlike any I’d ever felt to a fictional character. I understood Paul. I was Paul. Except that didn’t make any sense. I was not fucking my way through the gay 2010s — I was three years into a monogamous relationship and I’d never had casual sex. Paul and I had nothing in common except this feeling deep inside me that we were the same.
This wasn’t the first time I’d related to a promiscuous character. When I was in high school I saw Steve McQueen’s Shame in theatres three times and gave a speech in speech class about how much I related to the protagonist — even though he was a sex addict and I was a virgin.
Then in college I saw Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Part 1 and 2 on their respective opening days. I, once again, related to the titular nymphomaniac even though I’d only had sex with one person — my first serious girlfriend who I dated for a year and a half.
On March 2, 2014, I wrote in my journal: “Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more from the sunset. More spectacular colors when the sun hit the horizon. That’s perhaps my only sin.” That quote is from Nymphomaniac, but it also is my explanation for why I’m not promiscuous. I want more than mild feelings. I want to feel overwhelmed.
Another explanation for why I was not promiscuous was that I was a closeted trans woman and didn’t know it. Another explanation for why I was not promiscuous is that throughout my relationship whenever sex focused on my pleasure I dissociated away. Until I came out three years later, all I had was intimacy, all I had was romantic projections.
But by the time I read Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, I’d already been on hormones for a year. I was far from feeling connected to my sexuality, but for the first time in my life I wanted to be. My connection to Paul wasn’t so easily justified away, because I wanted the experiences I was reading about. This wasn’t the heaviness of Shame or the predatory male gaze of Nymphomaniac. This was erotic — queer and trans and erotic. I wanted it. I wanted it more than anything.
I asked my girlfriend if we could open our relationship. And when that didn’t work, I left. I left the relationship, I left the city, I left the past. I was finally going to be myself. I finally was myself. I finally was Paul.
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl didn’t just teach me how to be a slut — it taught me what kind of slut I want to be.
Paul does not float from encounter to encounter without feeling. His promiscuity is not the cold sluttiness we often see in mainstream culture. His desire to connect physically with people is tied to his desire to connect emotionally. Whether it’s a night or a lifetime, the sexual bonds he forms with people are meaningful to him.
Throughout the book Paul longs for his ex, Tony Pinto, and his Michfest tryst evolves into a full lesbian Uhaul experience. Paul is a romantic as well as a slut. He is always feeling, always searching, always collecting new experiences. Throughout them all he is often overwhelmed. It feels so basic now to correct my 2014 self and say that promiscuity is not antithetical to emotion. But when I look at how I move through the world, it’s a life I couldn’t articulate before meeting Paul.
For me, being a slut isn’t about fucking a lot of people all the time. It’s about freedom. It’s about discovery. It’s about connection. And it’s about community.
There are many ways to live a queer life. Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl showed me how to live mine. It’s my holy text. It’s my guide. Whether I’m having a scandalous affair or falling into a loving partnership, Paul will always be with me. I have business with the world. I have codes to crack. I have questions. And now, finally, I have a few answers too.
paul takes the form of a mortal girl is available now through autostraddle’s bookshop storefront
I love this series.
I really want to know what the straight woman’s book was lol
I /think/ The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai?
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is my favourite book of all time.
I also relate to him in a way that felt so deeply visceral the first time I read it! I can’t believe this book exists, I can’t believe it’s so good. Will there ever be anything else like it?!
Stunning, Drew, per usual
Here to pitch my even niche-er essay series, “The Queer Paradigm Shift I Had at Brooklyn Book Fest”
This book has been shadowing me since I saw it at UChicagos Sem Co-op bookshop and I thought $21.95 was just too much for my student self to take a gamble on an author unknown despite my draw to it, so I’m taking this as a very pointed sign that it’s This Books Time At Last
I loved this book SO MUCH because it spoke to me and my experiences as an impressionable, somewhat adventurous Gen X queer, but I could only convince one other person to read it. I’m so glad you wrote about it here, because I finally get to read someone else’s thoughts on it.
Paul is the ultimate Sagittarius!