On Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl

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.[1]

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,[2] 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.[3]

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.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. Oh wait, Logo already did this, alas.

On Sedgwick and Paranoid Reading

I finished Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint over the weekend, which drew enough times from a notion by Nelson’s mentor Eve Sedgwick (pictured right, looking terrific) on paranoid and reparative reading that I went out and found the essay, which originally was published as the introduction to a volume Sedgwick edited, Novel Gazing: Queer Readings. What she found in assembling the collection was that the writers within were chiefly ‘queer’ in how they operated outside paranoid reading practices.

These Sedgwick roots in Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, who in their various spheres wrote about and toward demystification and exposure of hidden systems. Freud especially is a problem for us queers, in how he read paranoia (the practice/affect of neurosis) as a result of our being queer, whereas (as Sedgwick notes from Hocquenghem back in the 1970s) if homosexuals were neurotic, this was owing not to our sexuality (or, say, our supposed failure to resolve the Oedipal conflict) but to our being gay in a world that demands repression.

This vital clarification is itself an act of paranoid reading—it’s concerned with uncovering and exposing as true that which Freud cannot or would not see—and given its efficacy no wonder it caught hold in queer theory. Sedgwick shows it’s pretty much (by the late 90s when she’s writing from) the default mode of all critical theory / academic writing.

Paranoid reading is crisply illustrated in a line she quotes from D.A. Miller: “Even the blandest (or bluffest) ‘scholarly work’ fears getting into trouble,” including trouble “with the adversaries whose particular attacks it keeps busy anticipating.”

In this, I am a paranoid writer, likely because I was trained by boomer academics in the 90s and 00s, the way I pee standing up because I was taught to by my standing-up father. I’d like to be a different way, but I haven’t yet read the part of the intro where Sedgwick gets into reparative reading practices.

At any rate, Sedgwick, being awesome maybe just unilaterally,[*] is not tossing out (false, negative, deleterious) paranoid reading for (true[r], positive, useful) reparative reading—that’s itself a paranoid tactic, to say nothing of its reifying a false binary—but rather suggesting what has become The Critical Method might be more usefully seen as one tool in a whole tool box.

And I really like this idea of paranoia being just one way of generating knowledge, and not necessarily the best way. It helped me think more phlegmatically about people online, or those who are really into conspiracy theories. To avoid the abstraction, I’m going to write about a representative conspiracist here, a person I love, or loved, loved to spend time with, valued and enjoyed, who roundabout the mid-Obama years became a chemtrails evangelist and turned uninteresting and less talk-with-able. (You can substitute your anti-vax family members if you have them.)

Conspiracists, or paranoid thinkers have locked onto the thrills that attend the practice of identifying and exposing lies, or even lies of omission—of which let’s be clear there’s an abundant supply in the world. There will always be an abundance of lies, no matter how successful paranoid reading practices are, because the world is an abundant place. There’s an abundance of lots. And while there is indeed knowledge to be gained from the exposed lie (this is half of great journalism, Wiki Leaks, etc.), paranoiacs and conspiracy people rank that knowledge by its nature at the top of some hierarchy. It is not only of the utmost importance to find, but in finding it, one demonstrates what feels like the utmost intelligence—compared, say, to the ‘sheeple’, who either have not (yet) done the uncovering or will not (ever, likely) see the value of what’s been uncovered.

But another truth that’s hard for the paranoid to see is that there are other forms of knowledge, regardless of where these forms fit on their self-made hierarchy, that could be more useful forms of knowledge, which are unknown not owing to any deceit or coverup. They are hidden, yes, but because complex and not easily disseminable or represented in media or stories or others’ ideas. Or they’re hidden because camouflaged, like certain birds in the wild. (This is half of great theory, or personal credos, or true self-acceptance.)

In this knowledge practice, you go into the woods to look for the bird, and if you don’t see the bird it doesn’t mean the bird doesn’t exist. It doesn’t lessen the bird’s importance or invalidate your need to see the bird. It just means you didn’t see the bird there or then. So you go back tomorrow, or you go to a different woods, knowing all the while that even the pursuit of the bird carries its own pleasures. One day, you get lucky and you see the bird, and it changes your life, and from that day on you live as someone with a memory of having once seen the bird. You write about it in your journal. You get up the next day and look for a different bird.

UPDATE: In this shower this afternoon I thought more about the reasons people enjoy paranoid reading practices, especially of the culture/governments, and what makes the knowledge exposed there rank so high in the paranoid mindset. Why it might be, as I claim above, of the utmost importance to find. Why would they not tell us? asks the paranoid. Often, the knowledge is kept from us civilians ‘for reasons of national security’, which implies that some knowledge is too dangerous to disseminate, too threatening to those in power. Like, say, that AIDS was invented by the U.S. to kill gays, or how 9/11 was an inside job, or that vaccines cause more sickness than they prevent—or, on the other side of the coin, that Iraq did not have nuclear weapons, that the U.S. military kills civilians in drone strikes, or that the NSA spies on everyone without warrants.

But protecting a deluge of revolt or lost party support isn’t the only reason to hold onto knowledge. Sometime knowledge is kept because in knowing something you don’t know, I have some power of you. Kept secrets, then, can be a form of plain dumb greed, regardless of the useful-/uselessness of the knowledge being held. (Sometimes knowledge is held because governments are inept and don’t know how to get it out there, or are so inept that nobody is even aware of whose job it is to steward this information.) To say it clearly, often people addicted to power hold onto it for its own sake. (I’m thinking here of the general in Don’t Look Up who lies about the free snacks so’s to charge his colleagues $20 each he doesn’t need.)

If secrets are a form of greed, this makes the next step in the paranoid mindset—i.e., knowledge of the ‘utmost importance’ making me someone with the utmost intelligence—all the more problematic to the cause. Because believing that you are separate from (and, let’s face it, above) the ‘sheeple’ who don’t know what you know or don’t care much about it, means that what lifts you up is the knowledge you have that they don’t. Your power (of knowing, of not being bluepilled) comes from their not knowing. And thus all you’ve done in your work to expose the truth is pry open the circle of those who know to let yourself stand inside it.

It’s one way conspiracists maintain power systems more than they upend them. My response to learning this past decade that Flat Earthers are real and impassioned, or when hearing once again that we live in the Matrix, is ‘Okay but now what?’ What happens to my life and priorities and commitments, what happens to how I treat the people and things I love, once I’m convinced the earth is flat? Or a simulation?

All I ever come to is that I would know it. My knowledge would be a precious ring I could pet in the corner of some dank cave. There’s snark in that sentence but as a writer deeply versed in paranoid reading strategies please believe I know how great it feels just to know something and know that I’m right about it. Until, that is, it doesn’t.

My intuition is telling me that ‘reparative reading’ for Sedgwick is going to involve something of this ‘Now what?’ or the putting of knowledge to some generative next step.

UPDATE UPDATE: Washing out our ziplocs this evening (talk about reparative practices), it hit me that my thinking here helps me understand why I always loved Veep over its contemporaneous D.C. fantasia House of Cards. The latter, in its dark noir machinations and sinister undertones, seemed to want to impart more power to those who already had it. What if the people we trust least to act in our interests were even more untrustworthy? that show asked, and I was like, ‘What are you doing? What am I supposed to do with this message?’ Whereas Veep seemed to ask, What if the people in power were all stupid, self-involved, stupid dumdums who barely knew what they were doing? That question, like HoC‘s, does potentially lead to scary further questions, but before I go down that road I feel at first equipped to do so: ‘Okay yes, now this I can do something with.’ Veep is a show with far more political possibility than House of Cards. That the good one of the pair is a comedy says something about humor’s being possibly a stronger theory (another term I learned today from Sedgwick) than paranoia.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I mean this ¶ alone: ‘The phrase [“hermeneutic of suspicion”] now has something like the sacred status of Fredric Jameson’s “Always historicize”—and, like that one, it fits oddly into its new position in the tablets of the Law. Always historicize? What could have less to do with historicizing than the commanding, atemporal adverb “always”? It reminds me of the common bumper stickers that instruct people in other cars to “Question Authority.” Excellent advice, perhaps wasted on anyone who does whatever they’re ordered to do by a strip of paper glued to the bumper of an automobile! The imperative framing will do funny things to a hermeneutic of suspicion.’

On Checking Out a Book from the Library on a Day When Over 3,000 People Died of COVID-19

I.
I work some days in Gleeson Library on University of San Francisco’s campus; there’s a handful of study rooms in the library USF has allowed faculty to reserve for work purposes while the administration keeps closed every other building on campus to save money. There’s a lot of talk about how it’s to save lives, prevent transmissions, but the science isn’t there. It’s to lower USF’s costs of electricity and paying custodial staff while it weathers the financial sides of this health crisis.

The semester is over. Our Class of 2020 graduated today via Zoom webinar. I spent this afternoon reading interviews with John Cage, to find some inspiration about other forms of artistic processes I might use for my Nonfiction Studio course in the spring. I sit, when I’m on campus now, in 235 Gleeson, a windowless study room with dimmable overheads and a door that can close. It’s a room that in normal times could seat 12 students, though maybe not comfortably, but which earlier this year was converted for just 6 people safely distanced from one another. Naturally, I’m the only person in the room. I sit all the way in the far corner so that I can face the glass wall that looks out into the 2nd floor stacks.

Standing surrounded by high library stacks is among the safest feelings I can summon. As much as I try to accept and even embrace chaos, standing surrounding by high library stacks always brings an order I’m grateful for. It’s a swaddling blanket. I’m a baby there.

Anyway, John Cage and his interviewer were talking in 1990 about the Gulf War and intention in art-making, and either the purpose(s) of making art or its function(s) in society—I was indulging myself in unfocused reading after a semester just full of it. His interviewer mentioned some ideas of John Dewey’s that I found myself responding to, and she mentioned they came from his book, Art as Experience. I kept reading. Interviews are like podcasts but better, in that you can read at your own pace and it’s easier to skip through the gab. Soon, I felt continually distracted by gab, wanting to get back to the ideas, and I thought: I should just go to the source.

And then I looked up at the stacks and realized I could.

Dewey’s book was N66.D4, which was on our library’s 3rd floor, and so I got my mask on and walked upstairs and found it, a tiny 6×4″ hardcover from the book’s 3rd printing in 1938. Here’s what it looks like:

It’s a perfect book shape.

II.
That morning, walking to work, I thought about people who won’t wear masks these days because they see it as an affront to their civil liberties. Americans should be free from the tyranny of having to wear a mask, seems to be the idea. I’ve written about these ideas before, and my friend Beth put my laments in similar terms in a recent reply-tweet to a Post story I’d tweet-linked about South Dakota:

Beth’s right. Or, at least, I agree with her, and this morning I wished that more of us had opportunities to be encouraged to check in and see if we were really thinking for/from ourselves or others, which is another topic I’ve written about recently. One of the men quoted in that Post article, I could see, felt that his refusal to wear a mask or take any vaccine felt very much like thinking for himself. When everyone around you is doing one thing and telling you that you have to do it too, it feels very much like freedom and independence to decide Not Do That Thing.

But “I’m Not Wearing Any Mask” isn’t thinking, it’s feeling. It’s another received idea that, by speaking it aloud, shows evidence of not-thinking. Which to me is evidence of being not-free. And this morning I wished we were talking about forms of personal freedom that didn’t involve obedience to the state or abandonment of it.

III.
I was clearly the only person in library today. I knew because the positions of the stall doors didn’t change every time I stepped back into the men’s room, nor did the levels of the paper towels hanging out of their dispensers. I rarely see anyone across the 6 or 8 hours I spend there. There’s always lots of silence, and Cage was big on silence.

I put aside the book of Cage interviews the moment I got back to 235 with Dewey’s little book in my hand. His main task is to posit a(nother) theory of art, and his claim in the opening chapter is that any theory of art can’t begin the way art usually begins today—i.e., distinguished in arenas separate from everyday life. We put art in museums, we make opera expensive and keep it in distant theaters, etc. It’s an old argument, but still a useful one. Art comes from the desire to embellish everyday experience, says Dewey, and so we must look at that experience to understand art’s use and forms:

Direct experience comes from nature and an interacting with each other. In this interaction, human energy gathers, is released, dammed up, frustrated and victorious. There are rhythmic beats of want and fulfillment, pulses of doing and being withheld from doing.

Reading that passage reminded me for the first time today that I was lonely.

When I finished the chapter, I grabbed my laptop charger out of the wall plug and wound the fraying cable around its tines, and I packed my laptop and travel mug and Cage books into my backpack. I left the door open behind me as I walked out to the hallway, because I’ve found through experience that it helps regulate the temperature such that the room doesn’t get too hot or too cold when I return. And when I return, the door is usually open, even days later.

Downstairs, I walked up to the circulation desk opposite the library’s entrance. “Can you still check out books?” I asked, even though I knew from previous circ-desk interactions that the answer was yes.

The only person sitting at the desk was a gal younger than me by ten years, with a mask and a cast on her left arm swaddled in a sling. “I’m sorry?” she said, getting up from her desk.

“Can one still check out books?” I said, revising my approach.

One could. I handed over the little Dewey book and my ID and took a couple steps back to about 6 feet. I saw a nearby bottle of hand sanitizer, and I squirted its goo in my palm as an extra show of civic-mindedness. There was a problem with my barcode, so she had to enter my number manually, typing slowly with the only hand’s fingers she had at her disposal. I loved everything about how long this was taking. As much as I wanted that book back in my hands, as eager I was to feel the freedom of being allowed this thing, if only for a while, I would have happily waited seventeen hours while she worked this barcode issue. Instead we had a short chat.

“How’s your day going?” she asked.

“Pretty good,” I said. “Just doing some of the reading I want to do, now that the semester’s over and students are all done turning in work.”

“Right? It’s nice to have a little break I bet.”

“Yeah, I imagine it’s like how parents feel when the kids go off to college. Like, ‘Ahh, we can finally focus on ourselves.'”

She laughed at this, and typing it out now I regret the simile, its inaccuracies, but that’s why I’m a writer and not a public speaker. She took the book and ran its spine two or three times along the scanner, demagnetizing it, and told me it was due back on May 28th 2021. I took Art as Experience and held it in my hand all the way home.

It had rained while I was in there. I’d had no idea.

R.I.P. Randall Kenan

News came this morning of the death of writer Randall Kenan, who came into my life twice and made a lasting impression. Once, as a graduate student, I had to take him to the State Office Building to get a replacement Social Security Card, so that my school could officially pay him for the guest lecturing he was there to do. It was a ludicrous, silly task, and he took it in an only lightly bewildered spirit—I’ve had similar chores with visiting writers and usually they’re quick to get vocal about their being inconvenienced. Randall had this buoyant, sparkling laugh that he wasn’t ever stingy with.

Eight years later I was honored to be his fellow at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. I was there with my story collection, but I wasn’t writing fiction then, and so I didn’t take up his time with a one-on-one conference about my work. I immediately regretted it. I regret it still, but I remain fortunate to have watched him talk about fiction in class. His co-lecturer was a notorious blowhard, well-meaning but exhausting, and it was such a delight every time to watch Randall gently and insightfully step forward, so to speak, and center our focus and concern.

If you don’t know his work, I can recommend his debut novel, A Visitation of Spirits (or his forthcoming one, If I Had Two Wings). To help remember Randall, I dug up this old post/review of Visitation, from 2016:

Continue Reading…

Wayne Koestenbaum’s Figure It Out

Picture the brainy friend you like to accuse of overthinking things and to whom you often say, “That’s maybe a bit of a stretch” visiting you for the weekend, and it’s Sunday, their last day in town, and while you both woke up hung-over, drugs or some other remedy have eased the hangover pains enough that your friend is now talking in comfortable monologue about things you’re only partially familiar with, commenting on your art on the walls while you find another record to put on, discoursing on the aspects of his discourse that surprise him as you pay only partial attention.

If that sounds like a perfect afternoon, go buy this book.

“My new idée fixe is asemic writing,” he writes in “Corpse Pose”—”writing that doesn’t use words or signs.” Koestenbaum’s a painter, and throughout the book fall essays that read like lists of writing prompts, or art prompts, or both, which essays urge us to let ourselves get reckless and productively aim-less with our artmaking. Though as an essayist, he’s stuck with language and its trap of signification, much of the pleasures of the book come when he leaps about his subject in attempt to slip that trap. These are essays so horny for signifying’s decay, if not writing’s total dissolution, and Koestenbaum knows language itself can do the job, the way silicone lube tends over time to eat away at silicone sex toys.

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Three Translated Paragraphs of Huysmans’s À Rebours

I picked this book up again last night, a favorite from grad school, a germinal novel of French decadence. You may know it as the book that corrupts Dorian Gray halfway through Wilde’s novel. Quick precis: the final scion of a long decaying, inbreeding aristocratic family leaves society and shuts himself up in a large house where he lives, eats, and breathes decadently. Nothing really happens. It’s a beautiful book.

I read it in the Robert Baldick translation, from 1959 and put out by Penguin, and as I’d earlier this summer loved Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary, I thought maybe I’d see about rereading a newer translation. Searching The Booksmith, I found two: one from the 90s by Margaret Mauldon, and one from the Oughts by Brendan King.

King reviewed Mauldon’s translation for the TLS, favorably, calling it an improvement on the Baldick, so I originally assumed I should go get his translation, which is even newer. Also, I had this feeling that I wanted a queer’s translation. Des Esseintes, the “hero” of Huysmans’s “novel”, screws around with women (as you’re about to see) in his fall into decadence, but once holed up becomes, in ways, a queer hero.

At least, the paper I wrote in grad school about the novel argued so.

I have no idea on King’s sexuality or gender expression, or Mauldon’s for that matter. Or hell, even Baldick’s (queers existed in the 1950s, I sometimes forget). But mostly I was favoring King because his was newer. I have this idea that people are translating old texts better now than they used to; for one, translation studies is growing in academia, and for two, translators are less interested in “smoothing over” some roughnesses or X-ratednesses to attract “sensitive” readers.

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