Two young men sink deep into an online fantasy world, pitting the virtual against real
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)
The Chalk Artist
By Allegra Goodman 335 pages Price: US$27