Paulina & Fran: A Novel

  • By Rachel B. Glaser
  • Harper Perennial
  • 256 pp.
  • Reviewed by Nathan Blanchard
  • October 7, 2015

Clever turns of phrase can't save this otherwise disjointed, frustrating tale.

Paulina & Fran: A Novel

In Rachel B. Glaser’s short-story collection, Pee on Water, video-gamers learn how to give Yoko Ono an orgasm; monkey handlers float in outer space; and the history of civilization is described by the evolution of where we urinate. Crazy, right? But in her debut novel, Paulina & Fran, Glaser reins in the bizarre and keeps a tight narrative focus on the title characters and their many annoying neuroses, with mixed results.

The story begins at a New England art school, where fashion is currency, dance is numinous, sex is easy, and Paulina is doing just fine getting her kicks with friends and hook-ups. She’s the kind of twentysomething who says things like, “With art like this, who needs art?”

She’s self-involved, shallow, and conniving in a reality-TV kind of way. She believes her curly hair gives her social bravado. She believes her friends’ only purpose is to witness her biting wisecracks.

She believes in herself.

On a school trip to Norway, Paulina bonds with fellow classmate Fran, who is enigmatic and slightly more innocent. But only slightly. They quickly become besties and spend the rest of the trip judging everyone around them. For a while, all is peachy, but when Fran sleeps with Paulina’s ex-boyfriend, things disintegrate.

Their conflict provides the novel’s narrative thrust (such as it is), which Glaser unpacks for all it’s worth, developing an intricate survey of complicated relationships and the uniquely self-obsessed tribulations of privileged young people.

At first, the characters appear narcissistic to the point of caricature, with little to no awareness of anything important outside their own limited experiences. But as the novel progresses, readers will glimpse aspects of their own dark sides — the despicable ways we rationalize our cruel behavior and the calculated ways we construct our social lives.

It’s through this recognition that the story delivers its limited redemptive gestures. The characters genuinely want, and this raw, palpable desire saves an otherwise cringe-laden story.

To readers not up for an experience that makes them confront the awful mess of contemporary social dynamics, Glaser offers enough incisive quips to keep the surface wry and fun: “Her orgasm was like a shooting star one pretends to have seen after a friend ecstatically points it out.”

At the sentence level, she demonstrates a muscular, unique voice on nearly every page. Like here: “Fran could tell he was smarter than she was, but she didn’t know if he was smart enough to know this. He was still so young.” Or here: “There was a good future in his jawbone.” Or my personal favorite: “The next morning Julian made her pancakes, and it was still fun.” The word still! So unexpected, yet so natural and necessary.

These strange linguistic constructions hark back to Glaser’s zanier selections from Pee on Water, where readers must submit to the syntactical joyride. Alas, while the author’s word wizardry in Paulina & Fran may appeal to writer-readers, it’s likely to go unnoticed by reader-readers.

Glaser ricochets among characters’ points-of-view, making the narrative somewhat haphazard in places. And it’s often hard to tell what we’re supposed to feel about these superficial, egocentric characters (the kind we all remember from college). They’re pretentious and shallow, and yet self-reflective and contemplative.

Of course, maybe that’s the point — there is no supposed to when it comes to dealing with the rollercoaster of friendship, sex, and relationships that is young adulthood. “Good” and “bad” simply have no place here. Unfortunately, the cleverness of the author’s earlier work doesn’t seem to, either.

Nathan Blanchard’s writing has appeared in decomP, Atticus Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. He lives in Tuscaloosa, AL, where his bike tire recently went flat.

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