Seven year itch: Rachel B Glaser celebrates the diversity of female relationships

Glaser’s debut is part “post-collegiate” novel, part gender-fluid love tragedy. It is sharp, memorable and ambigious where it counts.

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A mirror is broken during a party at the Color Club, home to “a woozy cult-like community” of beautiful art-school boys. Lazily admiring herself in the shards is Fran, a homely painter with green eyes and light, curly hair, referred to by her rivals as “Farm Girl Fashion Disaster”. One such rival, Paulina, watches Fran “seducing the wall” from the centre of the dance floor, where she decides: “She wanted to be her, or be with her, or destroy her.”

Over the next seven years, as the girls move from the colour-drenched delirium of university life to the underwhelming monochrome that follows, it is the reader who must decide whether the broken mirror brought them poor luck.

Rachel B Glaser is a painter, poet, short story writer and now novelist who attended the Rhode Island School of Design in New England. Her story “Pee on Water” was by a stretch the most original selection in Ben Marcus’s 2015 anthology New American Stories, reading like a series of Ceefax subtitles bashed out to accompany the 1982 nature and technology film Koyaanisqatsi. A sample: “Cars come close to smashing. Flags paraded around, then stuck on the moon. A little sister orders her baseball collection by cuteness. Wild animals have no more room. Land gets so full of buildings, when town girls and city boys escape into the open, ‘God’ is waiting in the fields.”

As such, an expectant reader might be disappointed to discover that Glaser’s first foray into long-form fiction dispenses with the formal innovation that distinguished her shorter works, erecting a reasonably conventional frame – third-person, realist, chronologically linear – to house a reasonably conventional plot, part “post-collegiate” novel, part gender-fluid love tragedy. But this would be petty. The novel more than compensates with its presentation of two smart but slippery protagonists, page after page of sharp, memorable similes (oral sex is “like praying to a needy god, or resuscitating a drowned toad”), a memorable pastiche of the art-school world and a raft of decent jokes.

Paulina, we are told, “felt a big ambition, a great horniness, the conviction that she was a genius, and pride in not knowing what kind”. She understands the power of her charisma in an artsy milieu where “romance felt foreign” and the men are either tepid and incurious or brilliant but gay (and thus less easy to manipulate). She connects with others by performing and eliciting desire. Even her flaws must be envied. “It was an elite headache,” she thinks on falling ill. “She’d have to shoo people away from it.”

Fran, by contrast, stares “too long at birds and bugs and faraway noises”. She knows little of her potential, “[playing] with her hair so incessantly that Paulina knew she would never pass a job interview”. After a bout of mutual girl crushing on a class expedition to Norway, a love triangle develops between Fran, Paulina and Paulina’s boyfriend, Julian, in which Julian, a sleepy film student, is little more than a pivot by which the transfer of energy between the two women takes place.

As artists, they feel compelled to express themselves in visual terms, fabricating untruths and projecting them through fashion, dancing and sexual display. After the pair consummate their attraction to one another on a dirty bathroom floor, they drift apart. Paulina commodifies her personality in New York, marketing a conditioner for curly hair, while Fran drifts aimlessly in Ohio, living alone and writing test questions for an exam board.

Years pass and the stage is set for a grand reconciliation. Both of them are still sleeping with Julian, who has migrated to Pittsburgh, partly out of nostalgia. A rendezvous is proposed when Paulina scrawls a message in pen on the hapless boy’s bum, one that might answer the ultimate question posed by the book – a question of identity. Will the relationship between Paulina and Fran come to define the course of their lives, or are the impressions that friends (and lovers) make on us, even at their most intense, merely a part of growing up?

Paulina & Fran by Rachel B Glaser is published by Granta Books (256pp, £12.99)

Philip Maughan is an editor at 032c magazine and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming