The Chalk Artist
By Allegra Goodman
Dial. 352 pp. $27
Can Emily Dickinson compete with World of Warcraft?
That's among the intriguing questions Allegra Goodman raises in The Chalk Artist.
Aidan is among the students in Nina's American lit class. Though he's bright, he's also more interested in gaming than studying. He's hooked on products offered by Arkadia, a company run by Nina's father that's rolling out a new game. Goodman takes her time rendering this game's richly imagined alternative universe, so that we might better understand why, for Aidan, his "ordinary body seemed a dim reflection of his gaming self" and why his flesh-and-blood friends and family grow increasingly "indistinct" as "their voices died away."
Aidan's descent is aided and abetted by Daphne, an Arkadia employee. Resembling a sorceress from Aidan's virtual world, she seduces teen boys like him to play. She likewise enchants Collin, an Arkadia employee and the 23-year-old chalk artist of Goodman's title. Collin is also Nina's boyfriend. It's telling that Collin works best with chalk; easily erased, his creations can be disowned as trifles he claims he doesn't much care about. Collin, too, gets readily lost in the virtual worlds he helps create; his escapist immersion in games like UnderWorld is among the many traits he shares with Aidan.
True to his chosen medium, Collin is a sometimes flashy but also easily smudged and erased version of the more textured Aidan. The weakest sections of this novel involve Collin's romance with Nina, never quite believable. Some of the dialogue is remarkably stilted, coming from such an experienced novelist.
Moral without being moralistic, Goodman suggests gaming is not the answer. Though she understands how and why it tugs at sensitive and vulnerable teens like Aidan, she worries about all it means when a boy "would rather play online with strangers than quest with friends in the same room."
Nina tries to win Aidan back, making good on her dream "of enchanting kids with words instead of optics." "She had grown up with games," the narrator tells us. "She craved truth."
Goodman herself seems more willing to recognize that both gaming and poetry are forms of fantasy. It's Nina's beloved Dickinson, after all, who boasts she'll speak the truth by telling it slant.
But Goodman also clearly believes some fantasies are more compelling than others. Compared to someone as fierce and original as Dickinson, she tacitly suggests, even the most awesome virtual avatar becomes a boring lightweight. She's right.
This review originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.