I’m late to this book. I was early to it, having picked it up in 2018 (in the original printing!), but I couldn’t finish. The novel, as I wrote in a blog post on abandoning books, was ‘about 80 percent “hanging out at bars” and I couldn’t get engaged in the book as anything other than a remarkable tour de force.’
I don’t know what I was thinking.
Andrea Lawlor’s novel—about a boy named Paul who can transform his body’s size, shape, and even sex organs—is the queer narrative I’ve been looking for for ages. I want to try to figure out what changed, within me as a queer and/or a reader, that made me so grateful to be reading a book I had very little patience with 4 years ago. I always knew I would return to it (the reviews alone, from friends and the literati, suggested it was better than I was seeing), but I figured I’d do so as a bit of homework, housekeeping. Okay, I read it and I get why everyone loves it.
Instead, I’ve now read it and I need everyone to understand why it’s great.
‘Paul was never very good at having friends. If he liked someone enough to get to know them, he’d want to suck their cocks or even just make out after weeks of prolonged staring. That might be his favorite.’
Paul Polydoris is full of doubts about who he is and who he should be, who he should be with, what he should be doing with his life, etc.. He’s a very classic post-teen except when it comes to sex, about which he has few if any doubts. Paul is ‘good at sex’ in ways that have nothing to do with prowess or maneuvers in bed, and everything to do with knowing himself and what he likes or wants to try and not feeling ashamed about it. Here’s a passage from when Paul takes the titular form of Polly at Michfest:
Paul was naturally curious about girls; he didn’t know how to find a boyfriend; and sex was sex, he thought. Later, other gay men would find this remarkable; they would make their endless fish jokes, or confess proudly their inability to get hard with some cheerleader. Paul didn’t understand that. What was sex but newness? And sensation and conquest and intrigue and desire and romance and fantasy, and specific people sometimes, sure, but not always. Having sex with Heather Federson had been hotter than sucking off the fourth guy he’d ever gone down on. Not as hot as the first three, the newness there trumping their less-appealing qualities. Fucking Heather Federson had been scary and dangerous and even humiliating, and he’d felt brave to do it and protective of her and scared of her and all of that was fun, right? […] She didn’t love him either, and wouldn’t. She was proving something on him too. Boys were harder, easier, more dangerous, and mostly Paul just wanted them more, but something was better than nothing, when it came to sex, and always, always he was curious.
Note the line ‘other gay men’—one of Paul’s many gifts is his ability to stay himself (a gay man) even when he’s fucking his girlfriend with his girl genitals. In Paul, the bounty of queerness multiplies and shifts as his body does, or his whimful desires do. He’s a total hero to me in this way—not in that I wish I could also have female genitals to explore lesbian sex with, but because Paul doesn’t let any categorical identity dictate his choices and desires.
I can’t tell you how good it feels to read a novel about a queer character who just likes sex, and in liking sex acknowledges the reality of HIV (this story is set in 1993, by the way), but for whom sex doesn’t become a question of identity, destiny, or self-worth. It feels revolutionary, but maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong novels lately….
Another of Paul’s gifts is having grown up in thickly queer circles, which has given him sharply hewn opinions on art and aesthetics. Before I get to some examples, and why I love that the novel makes room for them, I want to first point out how remarkable this is. There are plenty of novels about gay men—going all the way back to Giovanni’s Room at least—that stick their protagonists in relative isolation. These novels tend to be tragedies, and even humorless ones, which I’ve always found strange given how funny gay people are. When you yourself are a queer kid in isolation—no queer friends, no clubs at your school, etc.—these novels seem to affirm the lies you can’t help tell yourself (well, you’ve picked them up from the air around you): your difference is going to be painful, and likely leave you loveless, if you don’t commit suicide by the end of your short narrative.
Here are some representative passages I marked:
[Paul] crossed the street and used all the change in his pockets to buy two Boston cremes. He leaned on the counter, eating his donuts out of the bag. Paul liked any food that exploded into his mouth: grapes, Freshen-Up gum, soup dumplings. There was something pleasing, something orderly, about swallowing a mess.
[Paul’s friend] Jane was alternately drawn to and horrified by Darwinism, and often found herself attributing phenomena to the unseeable (hormones, pheromones) despite her strict identification as a social constructionist. This was one of her sore places. Was biology destiny, in fact? That might really fuck up not only her identity but her dissertation.
He ostentatiously returned [Patti Smith’s] Radio Ethiopia to the rack…. He made it to the shop on time, took the key from Madge, the owner, who was off to scout rural Salvation Armies. Paul settled into the big leather chair to think, because no one bought expensive snap shirts before noon.
Patti Smith—why was she such a genius? The cover of Horses was tacked to the shop wall. He tried to imagine the day Mapplethorpe took that picture, what Patti Smith had been thinking. He wished he had a cigarette. He thought about the smell of piss baking on the August streets of the East Village. he imagined drinking Patti Smith’s piss, then Robert Mapplethorpe’s. Then Jean Genet’s. Then River Phoenix’s.
This was the stuff that I think originally made me put the book away. Nothing was happening. Paul didn’t want anything specific, and there was then no clear obstacle to get in the way of that pursuit. Etc. Etc. But lately I’ve been looking for queer narratives that are queer in form and not just in the characters involved—which, when they perpetuate ancient narratives about queer sex as tragic or disease-bringing, or even worse, when they mirror Austen-style love & marriage plots but with gays!, makes me think of the inevitable season of The Bachelor that’s the exact same show but just with men.
I think I’m done with queer representation inside hetero forms. Lawlor’s consistent trust in association, digression, and tangents (best illustrated in the Patti Smith passage above), delivers a narrative as fluid and shifting as Paul’s body. The engine that drives whatever plot is here involves moods and ideas, and in this way it reminded me of maybe the queerest novel I’ve ever read: Huysmans’s À Rebours.
If you’re looking for a good story in the classic sense of plot and pacing and resolution, PTTFOAMG will disappoint you—as it did the me I was in 2018. But if what you want in a novel is to transport you into a body and a mind you can live inside for a while, and read their world through that perspective, this novel is for you. It’s for everyone. I’m so glad I returned to it.
- I know I’m not getting very deeply into the explorations and arguments about gender this novel pursues, mostly because it’s not exactly my beat and others have already written more smartly about this than I could. But here I do want to point you toward a really smart essay Lawlor has in Mutha on becoming a parent and seeking a new term for themselves.↵
- I’m thinking here of Lie with Me, A Little Life, most of Garth Greenwell, likely other renowned novels I as a gay man do not need any more of (but which I’m also not sure I’m the intended audience for, which is a post for another time.)↵
- Oh wait, Logo already did this, alas.↵