In Allegra Goodman’s sixth novel, people shift between the daily world and a magical realm that is both evanescent and enduring. “The Chalk Artist’’ follows characters from passion to obsession to addiction. These young people are discovering personal agency while facing ethical and practical decisions about the future.
This is a novel of braided stories. Collin James, a gifted artist, is charmed by Nina Lazare, an earnest high school teacher who is the product of an affluent upbringing and determined to give back. Both on the cusp of 24, they grew up two miles apart in very different Cambridge neighborhoods. Collin’s twin teenage neighbors, Aidan and Diana O’Neil, are Nina’s troubled students. Collin’s mother Maia, a teacher, and the twins’ mother, Kerry, an ICU nurse, are old friends, both raising their children without partners.
Arkadia, a virtual-reality empire, was founded by Nina’s father, Viktor. “Her father produced mind-blowing, immersive entertainment. She wanted to separate herself from that. She dreamed of enchanting kids with words instead of optics.” The Teacher Corps is her chance to come into her own and share her love of poetry. In contrast, Collin, who has twice dropped out of college, has no plans, no constraints, no goals. He passes his days doing odd jobs and chalking enchanting pictures on the streets of Cambridge. Of course they fall in love. Nina wants to help him. “I could take you to Arkadia,” she says, confident he’ll land a job.
Meanwhile the once close twins evade hormonal, peer, and parental pressures in distinct ways. Aidan, immersed in the vivid games of EverWhen and EverSea, “was a healer and an Elvish prince, a leader of his company. He had a pile of gold, and a sword worth eighty marks, a magic ring, a diamond flask filled with hatchling dragon’s blood.” Diana, on the other hand, just “avoided herself.” Trapped by shyness and 30 excess pounds “[s]he felt disgust, resignation, surprise, but no sense of recognition.”
Goodman’s skill at portraying the roller-coaster of youthful romanticism, lust, boredom, and paralyzing insecurity is matched by her nimble evocation of place in both Massachusetts and Arkadia. Visiting Walden Woods, Collin and Nina discover, “The light was green, the boulders massive. Chartreuse silkworms swayed on invisible threads. Some leaves were bright, some dark and glossy, some dull, some pale, some olive, and all around them, pines grew straight up to the sun.”
Aidan becomes absorbed by, sometimes lost in, virtual escapades. “His ceiling was dissolving, his walls warping, rippling. A mist rose up around him. Fog that wasn’t wet; dry ice that wasn’t cold. For a long time he was afraid to stand . . . Aeroflakes shifted and resolved themselves, illuminated by Aidan’s ceiling light.”
Collin and Aidan get morally and virtually lost in the land of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), Collin as a new company artist and Aidan as a vulnerable teenage “qwester.’’ Each is seduced by the sexy Daphne, “a brilliant gamer . . . she could play multiple games at once.” Each must somehow disentangle from the tantalizing young woman who is secretly married to Peter, a ruthless executive and Nina’s uncle.
Goodman’s mastery of the technological creation and emotional experience of these virtual spheres is impressive. The Arkadian scenes are both captivating and chilling. However, the black hat/white hat dichotomy is a little strained. Another false note is ugly duckling Diana’s lesbian affair, which is portrayed as practice for the swan’s mature heterosexuality.
A shapeshifter, “The Chalk Artist’’ is a romance, sci-fi thriller, and a novel of ideas. As Collin and Aidan caper in virtual realms beguiled by rich, nihilistic techies, Goodman raises serious questions about gaming as a form of disempowerment and a possible gateway to violence. Daphne’s fake posts, designed to draw traffic to the Arkadia website, dramatize the easy manipulation of fake news. Back in the everyday land, Nina struggles to become a confident teacher and Diana works to reclaim a healthy body and self-respect.
Kerry and Nina fear they’ve lost Aidan and Collin. Will love, loyalty and poetry be enough to lure them back from the fantastical?
Although “The Chalk Artist’’ ends in a warm house, fragrant with gingerbread and echoing with friendly conversation, the seductive journey through Arkadia has taught everyone that nothing is forever.
THE CHALK ARTIST
By Allegra Goodman
Dial, 335 pp., $27Valerie Miner is the author of 14 books including the recent novel, “Traveling with Spirits.’’ She teaches at Stanford and her website is www.valerieminer.com.