New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2015. 256 pages. $14.99.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
Art school students have long been ripe for parody in popular culture, and thanks to fiction and film, it’s easy to picture the stereotype: misunderstood, hipper-than-thou, narcissistic, and with a terrible vice either smoked or imbibed. Yet while these shallow observations do often ring true, the juvenile “tortured artist” is a far more complex character than those habitually fashioned for a punch line or narrative contrast. She is frequently pinned between two worlds, creating beauty out of darkness, love out of social rejection, and personality out of fear. Rachel B. Glaser, herself a painting graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design, understands the duality of this figure, and her novel Paulina & Fran smartly portrays the art school experience with an unflinching honesty and humor that will resonate with readers, transforming what could easily have been a thin, trite narrative into a deeper meditation on friendship and the wavering joy of artistic creation.
The novel’s titular characters attend an unnamed New England art college, where Paulina revels in bold, brash encounters, provoking peers through her ambiguous sexuality and taking on the persona of a poor soul hauling herself up by her bootstraps. Fran, by contrast, exists closer to the fringes—flashy yet anonymous, sarcastic while somewhat friendly, and immensely talented. The duo grow close while on a school trip to Norway, and it isn’t long before they’re inseparable, much to the chagrin of Paulina’s previous best friends, Sadie and Allison. This new companionship fails to last, however, as a young filmmaking major, Julian—Paulina’s ex, and Fran’s new love interest—turns the two into frenemies, creating an uneasy relationship that continues to dissipate as the group graduates and finds themselves foisted into the real world.
Glaser’s terrific prose speaks to the yin-yang of both her protagonists’ personalities and the manic nature of the art school experience. Early on, the author peppers her narrative with small verbal juxtapositions like “tepid garden,” “sexy orphans,” and “violent, beating with life.” A utopian haven for late-night dance parties is found in a “crumbling” house covered in “dream catchers and colored glass.” Outside, a tree branch spears a painting, which “[gathers] rain and leaves, breeding mold.” As the novel continues, this coupling of opposites expands and manifests within the character’s actions. Paulina cobbles together her wardrobe by visiting Superthrift, a consignment shop where “remnants from hundreds of dull lives” wait to be discovered, and where Paulina feels she has “looted the lame, the poor, and the dead” to assemble a new, garish outfit. After finding a litter of baby mice, Fran helps a fellow painting major—Marvin, for whom she also has feelings—dress them in costumes before letting the dirty creatures run across a canvas with painted feet. And as Paulina and Fran’s friendship reaches its breaking point, Paulina admits she feels “drawn to Fran and repelled by Fran.” Watching her comrade weep, she notices that Fran
. . . grew prettier through the crying. Beauty is given to the idiots, thought Paulina, and recalled watching Marvin pick acorns. Beauty is the idiot’s consolation prize, she thought, yearning to switch faces and bodies with Fran. At least I have good hair, Paulina thought.
This final, selfish stinger by Paulina exemplifies the fine humor Glaser employs throughout Paulina & Fran. Her characters, trapped in the bubble of college and prodded to express their creativity, see themselves as unique, a danger the author portrays with knowing winks: painting instructors urge their students to “get weird and get wild”; Julian wears a T-shirt that says “REEL LIFE,” and decorates his room with Caravaggio prints and a poster of Chilean avant-garde filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky; Fran, early in the novel, says, “I got high last night and had revelations” with complete sincerity; and though Paulina convinces the school registrar, via seduction, to allow her to spearhead a new art history major (after she decides she “[finds] art making hideous”), she criticizes all art history majors as pretentious. These jokes, small and large, smirk-inducing and laugh-out-loud amusing, help propel the narrative, yet they also provide definition to Glaser’s creations. Though we may snicker at them, never do Paulina, Fran, or their companions feel like jokes. When Paulina tells her friend Sadie, “You sound like a malfunctioning hair dryer,” or when Julian compliments Fran in bed by telling her, “You have amazing breasts,” the characters’ respective brashness and awkwardness round them, rather than shading them as caricatures.
A little over halfway through Paulina & Fran, the titular pair, along with Julian and the others, graduate and are tossed into everyday adult life. To speak too much of these latter pages would ruin the wonderful conclusion that Glaser sets her protagonists up to confront. But it is fair to mention that, by splitting the book in two (“college” and “post-college”), the author continues to exploit the idea of duality to her advantage. Without the safety net of art school and without each other, Paulina and Fran are tasked with making their way in an environment where individuality and quirkiness mean very little, and where the commodity of art—both material and as a way of life—has become marginal. Here, personalities evolve and careers launch and fail. If college was the place where Glaser’s characters figured out who they were, post-college is where they devote themselves to these decisions and ride them to their often-inevitable terminus. In the end, Glaser’s novel succeeds because it stays true to the confusion of life and to the frenzied existence that creativity demands.