I remember enjoying Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector very much when it was published back in 2010 which is partly what attracted me to The Chalk Artist, that and what promised to be an exploration of the all-consuming nature of gaming. I’m not a gamer but I am an obsessive reader and so I can see the attraction of losing yourself entirely in a world other than the real one. In some ways Goodman’s new novel echoes her previous one, exploring the world of new technology and contrasting it with the older more established one of literature.
Collin is a talented artist. He chalks the backdrops for his friends’ theatrical productions, often staged in unlikely venues. He makes his money from part-time jobs, one of which is waiting at Grendel’s where his attention has been snagged by a beautiful young woman, a teacher who comes to the bar twice a week to mark her students’ papers, oblivious of the racket around her. Eventually these two get together. They have much in common but their worlds are very different: she, it turns out, is the daughter of the man who owns Arkadia, the designers of EverWhen which once consumed Collin’s attention; he is the son of a teacher – comfortably alternative and popular with her students – who takes in lodgers to make ends meet. Before long Nina finds herself unable to resist prodding Collin into doing better for himself, introducing him to her father who takes him on, spotting a useful asset for his company. Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old Aidan frequently pulls all-nighters playing EverWhen, worrying his mother and his twin sister who has her own demons to wrestle. Aidan’s obsession with his female EverWhen companion pays off in the form of a black box which opens up UnderWorld to him, a virtual reality game not yet on the market. With her sharp marketing eye, Daphne has spotted a way to manipulate expert gamers, fanning the flames of the already fevered anticipation of this new game. As Nina struggles to imbue her students with a love of literature, Collin is pulled further into Arkadia with its playground offices and exacting taskmasters.
Just as she did with The Cookbook Collector, Goodman uses a love story to explore the way in which technology shapes the modern world, sometimes to its detriment. Nina represents the values of education while Arkadia is portrayed as a manipulative organisation, quite capable of employing fake protestors to surround their launches with publicity-snatching controversy. I can’t judge the authenticity of the vivid gaming descriptions but Aidan’s obsession seemed all too believable and may ring loud bells for a few parents of teenagers seduced by the promise of a world more exciting than their own. The mismatch between gamers’ glamourous avatars and their owners’ physical reality is a particularly convincing touch. It’s a book which draws you in with an edge of suspense and engaging central characters but it’s not without flaws: Aidan’s twin Diana seemed a little neglected. Just as I thought we were about to explore her story as a counterpoint to Aidan’s, she faded away, making a brief reappearance towards the end. An absorbing read and an interesting insight into the gaming world but not quite a match for The Cookbook Collector for me, I’m afraid, although that did set the bar rather high.