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The Chalk Artist


The Chalk Artist

Bert drawing pictures on the pavement: Remember those scenes from Mary Poppins? I wonder if Allegra Goodman had them in mind when she created Collin James in her eighth book, THE CHALK ARTIST. There is something mighty appealing about an artist who erases his own work, who accepts its evanescence, who revels mostly in the doing, not in the finished product.

Collin is nothing if not appealing. At 23, he is preternaturally gifted but what most people would call an underachiever. An art school dropout, he works in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, bar and draws temporary chalk backdrops on blackboards for an outfit called Theater Without Walls, which performs weird versions of classic plays in public spaces.

Then he meets Nina, from a part of Cambridge much wealthier than his. She is bright and lovely but what most people would call an earnest rich kid. As a trainee with TeacherCorps, she is attempting to inspire her unruly teenage students at Emerson High School with American literature: Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson. Mostly, she can’t even keep them quiet and seated.

Goodman adds a modern twist by making Nina the daughter of Viktor Lazare, founding genius of Arkadia, a video-game empire that has mesmerized millions of kids. Its products --- the sword-and-sorcery game EverWhen and its soon-to-be-released dark sister, UnderWorld --- are more seductive than poetry or theater, and far more lucrative. When Nina gets her father to audition Collin for a job, these different worlds meet, and clash. Where do virtual-reality games sit on the line between commerce and art? Are they harmless pastimes or, as one character claims, “weapons of mass destruction”?

"THE CHALK ARTIST is intelligent, absorbing and inventive, with characters who inspire an ache, a sob, a smile."

Paralleling Nina and Collin are two characters who are the recipients (or victims?) of their efforts: the 16-year-old twins Aidan and Diana. Both, in turn, are Nina’s students, and Aidan is obsessed with --- literally addicted to --- the games Collin now labors to create. THE CHALK ARTIST is a sort of coming-of-age book times four. While the younger pair are awash in identity crisis, the older two are struggling to find themselves in work.

The book is at its best when it evokes this visceral sense of vocation. The scenes in which Collin is drawing are absolutely thrilling (“As mimics capture gestures in performance, he drew essential details, the curve of a neck, the soft dent in a pillow, the arc of a careening sled…. How did he do it? He seemed to steal from the world”). And Nina’s efforts to engage her students are filled with passion and self-doubt: “You had to get louder in this profession, not softer…. You were supposed to scream to show you cared…. Nina’s emotions were all wrong, if that was possible. She wasn’t angry when kids didn’t do the reading. She was crushed.”

Goodman is also wonderful at creating institutions, her descriptions stopping just this side of satire. Arkadia is fascinating, even scary, a self-contained hive ruled by Viktor and his sadistic, brilliant brother, Peter. Emerson High, where Nina teaches, is an ultra-progressive public school where students are required to keep Discovery Journals and hand in portfolios instead of taking exams. THE CHALK ARTIST is notable, too, for its affectionate portrait of Cambridge --- Collin’s version, at least --- with its block parties, organic foodfests, tree funerals and crafty, multiethnic vibe.

I have loved Goodman’s fiction ever since I read her early work: the story collection THE FAMILY MARKOWITZ (1996) and KAATERSKILL FALLS (1998), a National Book Award finalist. I also enjoyed THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR (2006) and INTUITION (2010). But her more recent novels seem to me a bit tamer than before, and that’s true of THE CHALK ARTIST as well. There’s more drama and bite in the video games than in the main characters’ real lives.

When Nina and Collin aren’t actually working, their relationship seemed to me blandly magical, gorgeously written but also soft-focus and slow-motion, like those scenes in movies when love is new and the Oscar-nominated song plays. They romp in the snow, have graceful sex, and even when they fight, nothing very gnarly happens. There is some tension in wondering how far Aidan will go to feed his obsession, but, that apart, I found the younger generation slightly tedious, especially the (to me) unnecessarily elaborate adventures in EverWhen and UnderWorld. When Diana develops an attraction to girls, or rather to one girl, it feels trendy rather than organic; when, through Nina’s tutoring, Aidan becomes a convert to poetry (Ezra Pound, yet!), it seems too pat. Yet I did like the sparring between the two kids, their bond a real-feeling mix of rivalry and love.

There are no good guys or bad guys here (with the possible exception of Peter). And that is Goodman’s gift: her benevolence, her fondness for her settings and the people who inhabit them. THE CHALK ARTIST is intelligent, absorbing and inventive, with characters who inspire an ache, a sob, a smile. I could visualize them all --- as vividly as if Collin himself had drawn their portraits --- in the heat of their work, their art, their addiction, their rage and love.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on June 16, 2017

The Chalk Artist
by Allegra Goodman

  • Publication Date: June 13, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: The Dial Press
  • ISBN-10: 1400069874
  • ISBN-13: 9781400069873