According to John Updike’s “Rules for Reviewers,” critics review books, rather than reputations. Then again, most readers also expect reviewers to situate a book in its proper generic context, and here Charles Bock’s debut novel presents a sort of paradox. Beautiful Children’s burgeoning reputation – the unusual amount of attention it has garnered from media outlets including The New York Times and this blog – positions it as a literary novel for grownups, part of the great tradition that runs from Flaubert through Updike and down to Rick Moody (the writer to whom Bock is most often compared). In at least one respect, this claim may have merit. But at the level of several of the basic elements of fiction – plot, character, setting, prose style, themes – the book comes across as something quite different: less a novel about its titular children than a novel for them.
The story centers on – or circles around – the disappearance of 13-year-old Newell Ewing one summer night in Las Vegas. At first, we surmise that Newell has been kidnapped; later it turns out that he has run away. Specifics notwithstanding, the novel insists on the magnitude of Newell’s fate by tracing its effect on other characters, much as Rutherford studied the nucleus by examining the way it scattered smaller particles. And so Beautiful Children takes on complexity, moving backward and forward through the lives of nearly a dozen characters, at times quite beautifully. The melodrama of Newell’s disappearance may enforce narrative momentum, but it’s the fractal structure of the novel that actually earns it. Like Donald Kaufman in the movie Adaptation, Charles Bock is “good with structure.”
The problem is that he seems unsure how to fill a structure meaningfully. Inner life, in Beautiful Children, consists more of sordid backstory than of consciousness, or perhaps Bock sees the two as interchangeable terms. With the possible exception of Newell’s father, his characters never rise above the level of caricature. He seems unwilling to imagine a thinking, feeling human being sinking to the depths of the novel’s sleazier denizens. But our literature is full of characters who are unpalatable but alive, like Joseph Heller’s Slocum, or Henry James’ many schemers.
Bock’s discomfort with interior life puts an added pressure on the surface details he uses to deliver characters, and here, too he falters. The strained banter of the younger characters consists largely of dated catch-phrases – for realz – and their attire, on which Bock lavishes detail, tells us little more. Beautiful Children is the sort of novel that refers to a major character only as The Girl With the Shaved Head, as though that, at this late date in history, still connotes anything.
To the extent that plot arises from human choices, the novel’s characterological vacuum sucks steadily at the foundations of its story. Because Newell is so generically a pain in the ass, and because his sorrows exist mainly to serve Bock’s tee-shirty themes – Modern Life is Rubbish; Growing Up is Hard – his actual disappearance, when we witness it, seems wholly unmotivated. The many events that follow from it chronologically (though they precede it in the novel) become random, the products of a counterfactual.
Bock seems to sense and to fear the moral unintelligibility his book builds toward, and attempts to salvage significance in fits of inflationary prose. As one suspicious reader’s letter to the Times pointed out, Bock’s grandiosity is often clumsy:
Electricity lit up Ponyboy’s skeletal structure as if it were a pinball machine on a multi-ball extravaganza, and the mingling odors of brimstone and sulfur and sweat and burning skin filled Ponyboy’s nostrils.
But I’m not convinced that Beautiful Children doesn’t sometimes stumble into a kind of Dreiserian grandeur. And, as I learned from Charles McGrath’s profile of the author, Bock came to writing rather late; his sentences may, with time, mellow into eloquence. Likewise, his gift for warping narrative time into audacious shapes seems to hint at better novels to come. On the strength of word-of-mouth, this one could have found a respectable natural audience: seventeen-year-olds eager to hear their melancholy reaffirmed, explicitly. But now, through the good offices of Random House et al, the woeful tale of Newell Ewing will have to contend with the expectations of a much larger group of readers…at least one of whom holds out hope that Bock’s bestseller status won’t blind him to the need to work harder to satisfy those expectations. That might be an actual tragedy.