I know the characters in this novel.
Not literally, of course. But it feels as if I know them. Local author Allegra Goodman brings her characters to life as real people. I’m sure it helps that so many of them are like real people I know — and her evocations of dozens of real places in Cambridge, as well as schools and software companies, are just so spot-on that it feels that I’m there. What even more evokes a sense of “you are there” are the immersive experiences in a futuristic massively multiplayer online role-playing game.
A brief excerpt can’t really do justice to these experiences, but I’m going to try. Here is a memorable passage showing what one character sees/hears/feels when he first starts playing the new version of a not-yet-published game featured in The Chalk Artist:
It’s quite a tour de force to evoke all this in a passage that’s pure prose: no visuals, no sound, certainly no virtual reality, just text!
But this novel isn’t really about virtual reality or video games, despite the power of Goodman’s prose. At its heart it’s really about teaching and learning. It’s about the experience of a first-year English teacher (second-year in the latter part of the novel) in a small Cambridge charter school. Actually, I don’t know for sure that it’s a charter school, but it sure seems that way: Nina is a Teach for America alum, with no apparent way to have earned a teaching license from her years at Harvard, and there is no sign of the Cambridge School Committee in the picture. But I could be wrong. Assuming that it’s a charter school, I conclude that it clearly can’t be Prospect Hill, as the progressive vibe is completely wrong for that school, but maybe it’s CCCS; I know a couple of CCCS students, but I don’t really have any sense of what the school is like.
Almost as memorable as the virtual reality scene is a scene in which Nina’s boyfriend — the eponymous chalk artist and a part-time actor — visits her English class in the role of William Shakespeare. A short excerpt from that scene, which has a lot to say about teaching and learning, can’t possibly do it justice, so you’re just going to have to read the book.
These two memorable scenes — one about technology, one about literature — illustrate the fundamental conflict explored in the novel. When I was a kid, I read C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, which is all about the harmful effect of this conflict in our society (actually, the society of the 1950’s, but it’s still true). Ever since middle school I have been enthralled by both math and languages, so I have a foot in each culture (probably the combined influence of my English-major social worker mother and my chemistry-major physician father, though neither put any pressure on me). As I have written in reviews of several other books, I am once again reminded of Marianne Moore’s description of poetry as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” That’s what we have here. The “toads” — the individual characters (adults and kids), their relationships, the settings, the video game — all feel real, but the story and some of the technology are imaginary. That combination is not only what makes poetry worth reading but is also what makes The Chalk Artist worth reading.
P.S. written on March 12: I had written the above paragraphs some time ago. Since that time, my friend and colleague Leah Gordon gave me a copy of The Chalk Artist and asked her friend Allegra Goodman to autograph it and write a personal inscription in that copy, along with some annotations about her former teachers. And now that inspires an additional paragraph:
In conclusion, as I look back at my post from yesterday, a review of the Weston High School Theater Company’s production of Player by Proxy, I see quite a bit of resonance between this novel and that unrelated play. I very much doubt that anyone in the ensemble had read The Chalk Artist, but some of the play’s themes about the addictive nature of gaming inadvertently reflect Goodman’s work. Just a serendipitous connection?