In her 2010 novel The Cookbook Collector, Allegra Goodman describes the egoism of Jonathan Tilghman, head of the fictional (and now unfortunately named) data-security company ISIS: “Jonathan thought about his day, not other peoples’. He meted his own stride.”
This is something of a first principle for Goodman: we are all always meting our own stride, attending more closely to our desires and fears than to those of others. Goodman’s novels, including Intuition (2006) and Kaaterskill Falls (1998), ask how we might expand our circle of interest and care, how we might move away from our natural egoism and towards what George Eliot called “immense sympathy without check.” Goodman also asks what role art might play in such a sympathetic expansion.
The Chalk Artist, set for release on June 13 by Dial Press, is Goodman’s sixth novel. Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the novel focuses on three characters: Aidan, a teenager obsessed with a video game called UnderWorld; Collin, a talented artist specializing in chalk who has recently begun to work for the company that produces the games Aidan so loves; and Nina, a high-school teacher who brings the various narrative threads together. (She teaches Aidan, dates Collin, and counts the gaming company’s founder, Viktor, as her father.)
The novel engages with many of Goodman’s familiar concerns: the relationship between science and art (Goodman writes as well on science and research as any novelist around, and her husband is a professor of computer science at MIT); the competing demands of work and life, professional ambition and personal happiness; and the nature of sympathy—how it is both a moral and an imaginative faculty. In its descriptions of gaming, The Chalk Artist also contains brilliant and sustained passages of world-building: the intricate, immersive descriptions of sublime landscapes and creatures we tend to encounter in works of fantasy rather than in works of realism.
Goodman and I spoke recently by e-mail.
Anthony Domestico: In a previous interview, you said that “believing in God and being a Jew who embraces the religious aspects of Judaism is actually very liberating, because you don’t have to identify with all the cultural stuff … If you do believe in God, it’s a given. You don’t have to talk about it anymore, so it’s freeing yourself up to be Jewish in other ways.” Has believing in God liberated you in any way as a novelist, freed you up to do things you otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t have done? Has it allowed you to explore certain material, or tell certain stories, or inhabit a certain kind of mind?
Allegra Goodman: For many American-Jewish writers, the dominant motifs have been cultural, secular, sometimes comic, often satirical. Writing about the religious component of Judaism, I found my own themes independent of the New York experience and the immigrant experience. (I did not grow up in New York, and my parents were not immigrants). In novels like Kaaterskill Falls, I’ve been able to write sympathetically about religious people—and beyond that, I’ve been able to take a religious point of view—because belief does not anger or embarrass me.
AD: What contemporary writers do you think are doing particularly interesting work exploring the nature of religious belief and experience?
AG: Marilynne Robinson is the one who comes to mind. Her novel Gilead and its sequels develop rigorous and moving inquiries of faith, forgiveness, sin, and redemption. I can think of many other writers who doing interesting work, but novelists such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Zadie Smith, and Elena Ferrante write about race, gender-roles, culture, class—questions of individual and national identity. They dramatize ethical dilemmas outside a religious framework.