Allegra Goodman's characters tend to become obsessed with whatever belief systems they espouse, and for nearly 20 years, her novels have followed them into their cultural bubbles — whether it's the separatist Orthodox Judaism in a small Catskills community in Kaaterskill Falls, the secular faith in science in a tight-knit medical research laboratory in Intuition, or the adrenaline-fueled, competitive Silicon Valley startup culture in The Cookbook Collector. In The Chalk Artist, her sixth novel, Goodman, who holds a PhD. in English, finally gets around to her own faith in the power of literature and teaching. She pits the very real benefits of forging deep understanding of the human condition through close reading of great literature against the addictively immersive but impersonal world of virtual reality video games.
Goodman's new novel is a rather generic love story with some echoes of Erich Segal's, also set in Cambridge, Mass., albeit inverted: Her heroine, Nina Lazare, is a rich Harvard grad struggling through her first year of teaching in a tough local high school. She falls in love with an art school dropout named Collin James, who's richer in talent than gainful employment. His preferred medium is chalk, "because you can do so much with dust." They meet in a bar where she's grading papers and he's waiting tables, and soon discover, as in so many opposite-side-of-the-track romances, that "They had grown up two miles apart, but it was as if they came from different cities." When she complains about her difficult students, he counters, "My art's been peed on." Hard to top that.
Both were raised by a single parent, but while her father created Arcadia, a wildly lucrative video gaming company, his mother earned teaching awards and brought him up among a posse of warm neighbors in a modest neighborhood of triple-decker houses. Although Nina doesn't need to work, she's pointedly rejected her father's massively multiplayer online role-playing games, (a.k.a. MMORPGs), to become a public school English teacher. Goodman spells out her position: "She dreamed of enchanting kids with words instead of optics."
Nina is rather humorless and prim — especially in the classroom — though not unlikeable. "She was serious the way she was left-handed, and she couldn't change," Goodman writes. "She had been raised on lies and fairy tales, and she hated deception and excuses. She had grown up with games, and she craved truth." Collin, on the other hand, is easy-going and loose. Will this relationship work?
Goodman, whose fiction often channels Jane Austen's smart, socially astute sense and sensibility, goes a bit mushy over this couple's initial attraction. But the emergency alarms start blaring when Nina decides that Collin is squandering his talent and she can help him by opening a door at Arcadia. Mention of that door, of course, is akin to smoking in the bathroom at school — asking for trouble.
Nina and Collin's story is interwoven with that of 11th grade twins named Diana and Aidan, whose overtaxed single mom, a neighborhood friend of Collin's mother, works nights in a children's ICU. Aidan's addiction to Arcadia's bestselling game, EverWhen, and a demo version of their new gaming system completely consumes him. His sister alludes to the unhappy situation in the "Discovery Journal" she keeps for Miss Lazare. "He'd rather live in EverWhen than in this house," Diana reflects bitterly.
As always, Goodman has done her homework and gets a lot right, including enjoyably sharp dialogue and convincing portraits of multiple mindsets and terrains, whether the snow-covered streets of Cambridge or the silvery river and glittery "aeroflakes" of Aidan's violent online playground. She also nails the frustrations of trying to convey the magic and import of Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare to a classroom of unmanageable, uninterested kids, and the intense, all-consuming push of artists and programmers toiling round the clock in a workplace that is "both scientific and theatrical" to build "a world of darkness, decay, infection" whose value beyond entertainment and economics is questionable.
A mother of four, Goodman also clearly understands maternal worry. Collin's mother, while proud of his extraordinary artistic ability, frets over how he will support himself with it. Aidan's mother bemoans the way video games, a sort of legal drug, have jeopardized her smart son's future, likening them to "weapons of mass destruction ... detonating in a million minds."
Readers who share this view will wish that fewer mind-numbing pages were devoted to gaming — though one can't help but marvel at how Goodman has captured the atmosphere of this virtual fantasy land so effectively in words. To her credit, although her bias clearly lies with literature and real relationships over virtual ones, she conveys some of the technical brilliance, creativity, and, yes, fun of video gaming.
The Chalk Artist is dedicated to Goodman's teachers — 20 of whom are listed by name — and on one level it is a lovely paean to teaching and the patience and passion required for reaching and awakening not always receptive minds. Although the love story driving its plot feels formulaic and the portrait of Arcadia Corporation as Evil Empire is rather black and white, Goodman happily makes room on her novel's pedagogic blackboard for imagination, fantasy, and self-expression — whether visual or verbal — and the importance of forging meaningful relationships that are far more substantial than aeroflakes or chalk dust.