Seven years after her last novel, “The Cookbook Collector,” Allegra Goodman returns with “The Chalk Artist,” a detailed look at the relationships we hold with the people in our world and the worlds we wished we were in.
Nina is an English teacher, trying to pave her own riches-to-rags way after growing up with her father, who developed his own videogame empire. This virtual reality, Arkadia, hovers over each character, shredding away at them until everyone’s raw. Nina is scared of the game and how it seizes people, and she’s trying to build an identity outside of the one her father created. She’s reserved and timid, taking the length of the novel, and her relationship with Collin, to grow out of this.
Collin is what I imagine Ryan Gosling circa 2005 to be like. Wild, passionate, irritatingly charismatic. He’s a chalk artist. Rather, he’s the chalk artist. His art is exactly like him, the chalk coming together and blowing away like magic. Quickly, fervently falling in love with Nina, she eventually gets him a job as an illustrator at Arkadia. Life ensues.
Using their love story as a baseline, the novel spins around Nina and Collin, dipping into the surrounding characters’ lives. There’s Arkadian employee (more so devotee) Daphne, who’s honestly just annoying. Toying with kids and basically feeding them a gaming addiction, she preys on Nina’s student Aidan, who, along with his twin Diana, spends the book trudging through each stage of his obsession.
On the come-down from the height of his gaming, Aidan starts to become infatuated with Nina. He thinks he’s in love, as crushing teens crushed by the world do, and he finds poetry through his tutoring sessions with her.
“He felt so strange. How did the author know? How did ‘Ezra Pound, America, 1885-1972’ write so specifically about his life? … These lines scared him. Oh, I have picked up magic in her nearness. He felt haunted. A stranger had been telling his secrets, publishing his dreams before he was born.”
Maybe it’s because I’m really dramatic, or maybe I’ve just read too much Ezra Pound to be unemotional, but this paragraph gutted me. Aidan experiences this piece of art so forcefully that deep down, he knows it must, in some way, have come out of his life. I get it.
I feel like that’s the purpose of the novel — to get it. To understand how a game, or a poem or a chalk drawing can experience what you’re experiencing. The story is so fluid, traveling through each character’s intensity with ease. Bits of their lives fall apart and come together just as quickly, and the ending isn’t really a resolution — it’s the birth of one.
The realm of Arkadia is terrifying, and it consumes the story. At first this irritated me because I was not in the mood to read about a virtual reality ruining people. It seemed like a tired plotline. I was wrong, and I was being dumb. By the end of the novel, I was awkwardly hiding my puffy eyes from the strangers seated around me on my late-night flight.
“The Chalk Artist” is absolutely worth a read, but it’s a little hard to read. It hits close to home, reveling in isolation and the ways art can at once save you from it yet push you deeper in. Aidan, Diana, Nina, Collin — they live in all of us, pieces of them glimmering when we’re irrational from passion or desperate from loss. It’s an open, rough peer into our world, and it’s difficult to not turn the page.