Thursday, September 16, 2010

Hillary Frank, Better than Running at Night, 2002.

I love a good künstlerroman. I discovered Frank via This American Life, and a brilliant piece about a conversation overheard on a train ride. (You can stream it from here.) Better than Running at Night is her debut novel, a quick-moving character study of a young woman named Ladybug (Ellie) Yellinsky. Ellie is beginning her studies at the New England College of Art and Design (this is my only quibble: the school name is clever, no? NECAD—said phonetically, as her father does, it reveals both themes and endings just a little too clearly) mid-year, taking a fundamentals class in order to catch up with her fellow students who began the year in September. She struggles with making sense of what art is, both with her oddball teacher Ed Gilloggley and her two fellow class-mates — and then the next oddball non-teacher. At the same time, Ellie is figuring out what it is to live; she’s in a complicated relationship with another student, is trying to make sense of her relationships with her parents, and is trying to understand who she is, post-high school.

Told in short snippets, and illustrated by Frank’s drawings (she holds an MFA in drawing from the New York Academy of Art), the book is engaging. I read it in just a few short hours, drawn into both Ellie’s life and the lucid exposition of what art is and how the artist works and grows.

My summary might make the novel sound overly familiar, solidly placed within a predictable genre. It’s not: Ellie’s travails and woes never feel trite or overdone, but are entirely plausible. There’s a marvellous moment when Gilloggley shows his three students some of his own drawings in charcoal:
The last slide was of a woman lying on her stomach in bed, partially draped by a sheet. It was a side view, and one arm hung limply over the edge of the bed. A single finger grazed the floor. The arm said everything about how she felt.
After seeing Ed’s slides, I knew why I had come to art school. (182)

The book seeks to use Ellie’s life to make sense of art and life in a way much akin to Ed’s work; revealing Ellie’s emotions and response, her yearning to create, and her desire for a fulfilled life. It resists easy endings, and indeed resists offering detail after the dénouement. It’s a well written, lovely novel; I look forward to reading more of Frank’s work.

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