Allegra Goodman cleverly combines the worlds of computer gaming with poetry and art in The Chalk Artist. Through her three main characters’ disparate interests: a young man, Colin James, with a untapped artistic talent; his true love, Nina Lazare, a struggling idealistic teacher; and a bright teenager caught in the hypnotic trance of an imaginary computer game world, Goodman addresses their common element – the need to relax into themselves to find happiness. But this is not a book about art or romance or happiness; it is about gaming.
Just as Nathan Hill used one of his characters in The Nix to demonstrate the evil effects of addiction to computer games, Goodman targets the dangers of living in the virtual world by having her teenage character, Aiden, play to exhaustion and eventual hospitalization. Hill had his character sleep his way into a new life, but Aiden’s addiction is harder to kick. Surprisingly, his young English teacher, Nina Lazarre, leads the way with poetry.
In a complicated riff on the effects of computer games on teenagers, Goodman connects her characters with the game itself. Nina’s father is the wealthy game developer. Recognizing Colin’s potential when she meets him waiting tables and drawing on chalkboards, she helps him get a job drawing dragons and avatars for her father’s new game. Through a marketing ploy, Aiden, who happens to be in Nina’s American literature high school English class, gains access to the unpublished game, and falls into the pit of nonstop playing, disregarding his school work, his family, his life.
The story jumps around from Colin’s descent from pure artistry to the cynical world of marketable images for the company, then to Nina’s frustration over not being able to convey the magic of Shakespeare to eleventh graders, then to Aiden’s downfall from A student to disaffected drone in school.
Goodman’s descriptions of the virtual world have the most impact, as Aiden’s gaming takes on more reality than the real world. The effect of dissolving, at times, into a movie set rivaling The Neverending Story or The Hobbit can be disconcerting, and its believability easily demonstrates how Aiden could have difficulty leaving a place where he is a knight conquering monsters to return to his teenage world of angst and uncertainty.
Sometimes the action seems as fast and furious as the virtual gaming the author is describing, and connecting the three plot lines can be a little harrowing. Not everyone will appreciate Goodman’s style, but her intent is clear. Eventually, Aiden finds his way by participating in a poetry recitation contest. The sixteen year old finds wisdom through an Ezra Pound poem that demonstrates the universality of his feelings, realizing that “these lines scared him,” that “a stranger had been telling his secrets, publishing his dreams before he was born.” English teachers all over the world who read these lines will rejoice and have their faith restored – someone finally got it.
If you get to the ending, you will find it dutifully romantic, with a final nod against the computer world, as Colin leaves his lucrative yet artistically confining job to find true love with Nina, and venture into the indie-animation world.
Not a compelling book, The Chalk Artist was easy to put down. Nevertheless, Goodman, who has a Ph.D. in English, had a clear message – good literature outweighs virtual reality, and relationships are far more important than video games or chalk dust.