Book Review of The Chalk Artist by Allegra Goodman

Maybe when you hear the words “chalk art,” you think kindergarteners playing hopscotch and drawing flowers on the driveway. Or perhaps, your mind goes to a chalk art festival where professional artists create 3-D images on the sidewalk. This book, The Chalk Artist by Allegra Goodman, takes chalk art to a new level.

Collin is the kind of artist who doesn’t quite know his own potential. When he draws, he uses chalk, working quickly and with finesse, creating incredibly detailed works of art which he always promptly erases. His scribbling at work (at a bar) attracts the attention of a young high school teacher, Nina. They quickly fall in love, and their life seems smooth, until Nina introduces Collin to her father, the owner of a huge video game company. After getting hired to create art for their new game release, Collin learns the consequences of drawing under contract and how his art, now made in cyberspace not chalk, can just as easily be erased.

But Collin’s story is only a piece of this book. We also follow Nina, struggling through her first year teaching. We meet two of her students, Aidan and Diana, twins who have struggles of their own: Aidan with his gaming addiction and Diana as she discovers and develops her own identity. And of course, there’s Kerry, the twins’ mother who is just trying to make ends meet working the night shift. All these story lines connect, building us our own virtual reality of people in a kind of survival mode.

One of the best parts of this book is the inclusion of narrative from the fictional video game world EverWhen. I love when contemporary novels integrate technology and the problems/benefits that go along with it. When I heard the premise of this book, I was reminded of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore from Robin Sloan. In that book, there was this continued conversation on physical books and computers and creating virtual reality out of “old knowledge.” Similarly, The Chalk Artist incorporates the gaming community into its pages, creating this virtual reality platform in which a player’s room turns into a mirage of the gaming world through “aeroflakes” that fill the space and make the player feel actually in EverWhen. This was really fascinating, and I think the book does a good job of opening up the conversation about how gaming is becoming more and more immersive. The storylines of Aidan playing the game were also very visual, and I really enjoyed reading them, even though I’m not much of a gamer myself.

On a tangent, check out The Void. It seems The Chalk Artist is addressing technology that already exists!

There were many perspectives in the narrative, and sometimes the point of view shifts in the middle of chapters, so I had to retrace the words a few times on occasion so that I could figure out whose perspective I was in. I think all the points of view were interesting; however, there were more than needed. I think the story would have been cleaner and more effective if we were able to focus on just one or two of the characters. For instance, I was starting to get intrigued by the character of Diana. She seemed like she was growing more complex and interesting as the narrative progressed, but in the end, we just see a glimpse of who she becomes after going through personal challenges. Another side character who only got the spotlight briefly was Diana’s and Aidan’s mom, Kerry. Her point-of-view was probably not necessary at all. Yes, it was interesting to see her emotional reactions to Aidan’s gaming addiction, but the same effect could have been written into Aidan’s perspective. Ultimately, the characters were interesting, but they didn’t all deserve their own point-of-view in the narrative. If there were fewer perspectives, perhaps the narrative would have been developed a little more, and the ending would feel a little more satisfying.

The point-of-view issue really sticks out for me in the book’s title: The Chalk Artist. If this whole book is supposedly centered around the artist Collin, why are there so many other perspectives in the story? And if we do need multiple perspectives, why does Collin only interact with basically one other character? Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe “chalk artist” speaks to a larger metaphor that I don’t get. If you get it, please leave me a comment! I think there may be a connection between the idea of chalk as an erasable art form and video game creation as an intangible one. Or maybe there is more than one artist in the book?

Other than that, I found the book enjoyable, easy to read, good for light summer reading! I typically would have liked the ideas and characters developed a bit more, but if you like to read about the interaction of technology and “real life,” you might like to pick this one up.

Thank you to The Dial Press and Random House for providing a copy of The Chalk Artist for review. You can purchase your copy here.

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