Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Mystery of the Missing

Charles Bock's Beautiful Children contains multitudes. Set in contemporary Las Vegas, the novel kaleidoscopes from the interiority of a stripper, a high school student, a casino manager, a comic book artist, various runaways, a 12 year-old, a mother. At its heart, though, is absence rather than presence. The action takes place on the day a 12 year-old runs away or just simply disappears, and revolves around the mystery of his disappearance and its aftermath. It's a novel about what's missing.

What's missing isn't just the literal, although the plot is driven by the repercussions of a child's absence and a large focus of the book is a group of teenage runaways. Ultimately Bock's focus is a state of disaffection - what happens when we live lives cut off from affect and affection. His characters swirl around one another but don't really connect. Lives intersect but don't intertwine. His characters constantly attempt to reach out to one another, or to anyone at all, through drawings, through conversation, through chat rooms, through pole dancing, but no means of communication proves effective. When the child Newell walks off into the desert he simply makes literal the ephemerality of interpersonal connections.

The text isn't depressing so much as it is sad. All of the characters are drawn with love, and are full of love, but the disconnect between interior and exterior proves to be too much for all of them. In that sense Vegas is the prefect setting for the novel, city of surfaces, false hopes, city of drift and manufactured glamor. Beneath those surfaces real hearts beat, real dreams live on beyond expectation; beneath our exteriors we are all beautiful children, damaged yet daring to keep trying, keep going. Connection isn't achieved but the hope for it remains alive despite the voids that lie at the novel's heart.

Will this book change your life? I don't think so, but it's awfully good, and awfully well-written, and awfully different than most of what you'll find in the New Fiction section of your local Barnes and Noble. It's awfully worth reading. Sometimes your heart needs to be broken just a little bit, to remind you that it's still there.

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