MIND GAMES

Two young men sink deep into an on­line fan­tasy world, pit­ting the vir­tual against real

Muscat Daily - - FEATURES - Julie My­er­son

Don’t be fooled by this book’s un­showy ti­tle. Al­though one of its char­ac­ters is adept at draw­ing on the side­walks of Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts, the real sub­ject of Al­le­gra Good­man’s novel The

Chalk Artist is the world of on­line gam­ing and its se­duc­tive - and po­ten­tially de­struc­tive - brand of quasi re­al­ity.

And if you don’t think you’ll find that sub­ject es­pe­cially en­tic­ing (at first, I con­fess, I didn’t), then think again.

The vir­tual world Al­le­gra con­jures is as fever­ishly vivid as it is mys­te­ri­ous and al­lur­ing. Not since I pushed my way through C S Lewis’s fusty moth­balled wardrobe and stepped out into the frozen, pine-scented forests of Nar­nia can I re­mem­ber be­ing so ef­fec­tively trans­ported into a vis­cer­ally, some­times ter­ri­fy­ingly plau­si­ble al­ter­nate uni­verse.

Collin James - “23, bright, artis­tic and un­happy” - is wait­ing ta­bles when he falls for beau­ti­ful, equally bright, but only slightly un­happy Nina Lazare. She is strug­gling with her first job, teach­ing at a “small, di­verse and ex­per­i­men­tal” high school.

Pas­sion­ate and ide­al­is­tic, she wants to get her “out of the box” chil­dren to read poetry, “not just su­per­fi­cially, but from the in­side”. How­ever, it turns out that Nina is no or­di­nary strug­gling teacher: Her mogul fa­ther is the brains be­hind Arka­dia, a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar com­pany that pro­duces “mas­sively mul­ti­player on­line role-play­ing games” - MMORPGs to you and me.

Con­vinced of Collin’s ge­nius as an artist - a tal­ent Al­le­gra de­picts with such in­ten­sity and in­tri­cacy that we never doubt it - Nina pulls some nepo­tis­tic strings to get him a meet­ing at Arka­dia. Soon he’s no longer mess­ing around with chalk but work­ing as a highly paid games il­lus­tra­tor, cre­at­ing the lit­er­ally fab­u­lous art­work that lies at the heart of Arka­dia’s lu­cra­tive empire. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Collin’s new ca­reer soon threat­ens to un­hinge his hith­erto sweetly un­com­pli­cated re­la­tion- ship with Nina.

Along­side this ro­mance, and in a plot strand whose rel­e­vance only grad­u­ally be­comes ap­par­ent, a stu­dent at Nina’s school is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ad­dicted to on­line gam­ing. For Ai­dan, school­work, fam­ily life and even men­tal equi­lib­rium are all be­gin­ning to suffer. And when one of Arka­dia’s cyn­i­cal, youth-fo­cused mar­ket­ing ploys en­ables him to get hold of an as-yet-un­re­leased game, his ob­ses­sion hits new heights and his life be­gins to skid out of con­trol.

If that weren’t enough, Ai­dan’s trou­bled twin sis­ter, Diana, both frus­trated and fright­ened by the loss of her brother to his gam­ing ad­dic­tion, is strug­gling with her own iden­tity cri­sis.

And back at Arka­dia HQ, Collin is in­creas­ingly drawn to Daphne, the com­pany’s imp­ish, charis­matic mar­ket­ing wizard - and the very per­son to blame for Ai­dan’s ad­dic­tion to the new game.

So be­gins a strug­gle be­tween the real and the vir­tual, the lit­er­ary and the fan­tas­ti­cal, as Nina and her poetry are pit­ted against Daphne and her seething vir­tual world in what threat­ens to turn into a fight for the souls of th­ese two young men.

If all of this sounds a lit­tle hec­tic, that’s be­cause it is. De­spite its lik­able en­ergy, Al­le­gra’s novel does some­times seem to be fall­ing prey to the manic, scrab- bled in­ten­sity of the games it de­scribes.

Now and then, I won­dered if that was her in­ten­tion, but if so it makes a tough de­mand on the reader. Both plot and struc­ture suffer from a cru­cial lack of bal­ance as some scenes are played out at need­less length - a sur­feit of class­room Shake­speare, for in­stance - while oth­ers are only glanc­ingly sketched. Pe­riph­eral char­ac­ters are taken up con­vinc­ingly and in­tensely but all too quickly dropped.

Even the cen­tral char­ac­ters dis­ap­pear long enough for you to won­der if you’ve been al­low­ing your­self to care about the wrong peo­ple.

It doesn’t help that the sup­pos­edly cen­tral love af­fair be­tween Collin and Nina seems strangely blood­less.

Mean­while, the world of Ai­dan’s gam­ing seems con­stantly to punch its way to cen­tre stage. Far be it from me to start pre­fer­ring a vir­tual world to a real one, but, since this seems to be where Al­le­gra’s own pas­sion lies, it’s hard not to be hooked.

Nina’s quest to get her chil­dren to feel poetry “from the in­side” does now and then smack of di­dac­ti­cism and self-in­dul­gence, but there’s no doubt­ing Al­le­gra’s abil­ity to make her read­ers feel things that way. This is a novel full of wit and spark; I found it oddly ir­re­sistible and ar­rest­ing, de­spite my cav­ils. And Al­le­gra’s de­scrip­tion of how it feels to be a 16 year old boy reading Ezra Pound for the first time, re­al­is­ing that “th­ese lines scared him,” that “a stranger had been telling his se­crets, pub­lish­ing his dreams be­fore he was born,” not only moved me but gave me goose bumps. (Julie My­er­son’s most re­cent novel is The Stopped Heart.) © 2017 The New York Times (Dis­trib­uted by The New York Times)

Al­le­gra Good­man

The Chalk Artist

By Al­le­gra Good­man 335 pages Price: US$27

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