Allegra Goodman’s “The Chalk Artist”

August 6th, 2017  |  Published in July/August 2017

The world of video games, I suppose inevitably, has begun to seep into both the fine arts and into contemporary literature.  Typically, with any new American technical innovation/ addiction, video games come with reams of theory on why they are excellent aids in education and the like; there’s a sociologist and/or psychologist to bless every new toy in the US of A. A couple of months ago, a reviewer in The New Yorker, analyzing an art show in which video games featured prominently, gave us this sage observation: the work, she told us, “falls somewhere between meaning and meaninglessness”. Now, whatever does that mean, other than sounding profound, clever, and, of course, ironic? One would’ve expected more from The New Yorker, but the pandering to millennials has hit everywhere these days. And they deserve better than that claptrap, as do the rest of us.

Allegra Goodman’s newest novel, The Chalk Artist, weaves much of its plot around the world of video games, but to fascinating ends.  The narrator/protagonist is a young woman, newly a teacher, struggling to figure out how to discipline and interest a classroom full of liberal parents’ children; she teaches English and  American literature, and we learn early on that her father is the founder of a vast empire of video games, and her uncle works there as well, in charge of the artists and creative output.  Said heroine falls in love with a quirky, individualist, artist/actor, a free spirit much in rebellion against the world of conventional work, and an art school dropout.  It’s pretty obvious to the reader that the heroine will introduce our chalk artist–and he’s a great character, truly–to her father, with real trepidation and fear.  Father and uncle must be seen as fanatic corporate types, making a fortune through a video game empire.

In a subplot, a single mother of high school twins, who are students of the narrator’s at the privileged high school, becomes rightly worried about her son’s obsession with video games; he has basically defaulted his entire life to the world of fantasy, and mom’s quite right to be worried, though she doesn’t know what to do about this problem. Goodman’ s honed in on a real contemporary American problem in her fine novel.  One of the most fascinating twists of the plot includes a woman who works for the video company, and who lures this young man into playing with her constantly–she’s actually test marketing a new video game, thus.  Goodman’s raised a fascinating–horrifyingly–issue here: how far should any corporation, particularly one dealing in fantasy for teenagers, go to create and addict a market?  The chalk artist, too, now employed nearly all the time at the video company, is also lured in by this same woman–she’s completely amoral–for corporate purposes.  Whether our chalk artist will wake up and get the hell out of this hellhole of a company or not, and keep his relationship with the daughter, becomes the main plotline of the novel.  But Goodman’s really aware of the world of video games, and we spend a lot –too much?–time in that world; she’s quite persuasive in letting the reader understand the allure of these games and how they can utterly take over someone’s life. And Goodman’s very intelligent to share with the readers the extent to which this particular video game company’s values are no different from any other new and hyper-aggressive corporation, regardless of product.  The contract that the chalk artist signs with the corporation, of course, makes him default to the company all his creative efforts there.

And as the teacher finishes her first year of teaching, she breaks through with one student, who happens to be the young man obsessed with the video games: all these are neat plot devices, well controlled and managed by Goodman.  And although I found myself bored with the games themselves, I did not skip any of Goodman’s descriptions of them:  The Chalk Artist is, in its way, a rather important novel, dealing with compelling contemporary issues regarding identity , fantasy, education, creativity, and the corporate world itself.  Goodman’s bitten off a lot of territory in The Chalk Artist, but the novel is riveting, beautifully plotted and written, and her characters make sense.  We should expect more literature about the world of video games and their impact on our culture; Goodman’s is certainly the first I’ve read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the psychology of addiction as well as those interested in coming trends in the arts.

–Daniel Brown

 

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