Charles Bock, Beautiful Children

The publication history of Beautiful Children makes for what is now an old story, but still a telling one. Charles Bock, its author, comes from the provinces (Nevada) and an unconventional upbringing (son of Las Vegas pawnbrokers). He struggles through school and college until he discovers the “second wave” of American postmodernist writers, a nearly all-male group who rose to prominence in the mid to late ’90s: David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, William T. Vollman, A.M. Homes, Mary Gaitskill, et al. A stint on the shopfloor of the fiction factory (a summer writing program at Bennington) introduces him to Susan Choi, to Rick Moody, who find him untutored but promising. In New York, Bock spends eleven years writing his novel in a garret off Gramercy Park and making friends who will publicize it. Its arrival is overburdened by fevered expectation; The New York Times runs a profile of Bock—which, typical for the genre, is itself not so much a profile of the person, as it is of the process just described.

It is, of course, not the first half of the story that matters—Bock’s somewhat curious background—but the second. For Beautiful Children, it turns out, is a thoroughly conventional novel that bears all the marks of his generation’s literature machine: a jacket packaged with breathless quotations by writers, such as Sean Wilsey and Jonathan Safran Foer, who went through much the same experience; an appendix weighted by an effusive, overlong list of acknowledgments with signs of being assembled in some haste (“Of course my wife…is the greatest fucking thing that ever happened to me”); and a narrative obsessed by comic books, pornography, and the “fragility” of childhood. It is particularly the fixation with childhood that makes it a characteristic product of the current literary environment (riddled as it is with pained memoirs of growing up). Beautiful Children’s thematic interest—what happens to “lost” children in the fringes of an urban setting like Las Vegas—corresponds to a childlike intellectual perspective, in which teenage interests like pornography and gentleman’s clubs are treated as exciting, lurid, and emotional. Bock’s prose—a relentless, heady effluvium of sensory impressions—has little capacity to distinguish or discern, whether it is describing a marriage or a rock festival, such that over the course of its 400-odd pages, Beautiful Children begins to feel like Las Vegas. It is overwhelmingly fascinated by the grotesque. Bock does not flinch in attempting to expose the details of homelessness, crack and gambling addictions, the pornographic film industry, but one wishes that he did. The feeling that Bock is trying to evoke is pity, pity for the real outcasts that inform his aimless characters, but the only way he knows how to express this empathy is sheer voyeurism. We do not get inside his characters’ heads so much as observe them closely, as if by hidden camera.

As a result, Bock forces on us more than we really need to know. Consider Bock’s description of the Las Vegas Strip:

“The neon. The halogen. The viscous liquid light. Thousands of millions of watts, flowing through letters of looping cursive and semi-cursive, filling then emptying, then starting over again. Waves of electricity, emanating from pop art facades, actually transforming the nature of the atmosphere, creating a mutation of night, a night that is not night—daytime at night. The twenty-four-hour bacchanal. The party without limits. The crown jewel of a country that has institutionalized indulgence.” (98)

What does Bock add here that the endlessly reproduced photographs do not already confirm? The problem is not that Bock is too mimetic. In fact, he desires so greatly to exceed mere mimesis—to have the description stand in for the image itself—that his tone and range of discourse become deeply unstable. “Viscous” connotes “liquid”; it adds nothing to employ both of them describe the light. Nor does it add anything to add “thousands” to “millions” of watts, since “millions” is already mentally ungraspable. Italicizing the phrase “daytime at night” gives it the quality of a revelation, but the idea is a discovery only to Bock. Any editor should have struck through the line, “the party without limits,” as pure tourist ad material and should have queried the last line as needlessly and emptily moralizing. After this description, Bock immediately lets us know that “[n]othing matches the spectacle of the four-point-six mile stretch known as the Las Vegas Strip”—and it is unclear to whom this would constitute information. Bock does not know when to withhold or to elide: he may be fromLas Vegas, but he writes about the city with the excitement of any tourist who mistakes himself for an anthropologist.

Accordingly, the plot of the novel—such as it is—loosely strings together characters that serve Bock’s enthusiasms for describing low-life. In its most linear mode, with chapter headings that remind us the time of day (e.g. Chapter 5 takes place at “12:30 a.m.ish”), Beautiful Children tells us the story of Kenny, a budding artist and closeted homosexual, who takes the hyperactive 12-year old Newell Ewing out for a night on the town that increasingly becomes a nightmarish picaresque among the city’s outcasts. But the novel’s opening finds Newell’s parents, Lincoln and Lorraine, in mourning for their missing son, the ache that simultaneously unravels and reaffirms their marriage. The only motivating interest of the plot, then, is to discover how the novel’s linear present arrives at its future—that is, how does Newell disappear? A few other plot strands cross the main narrative. One involves an exotic dancer named Cheri Blossom, who constantly abstracts from her successful career to imagine herself as a movie heroine escaping the constraints of her Catholic girlhood, while her boyfriend, Ponyboy, a heavily tattooed thug constantly knocking over tourists on the streets, attempts to get her involved in amateur pornography. Another plotline follows a character we know only at the Girl with the Shaven Head, whose youthful enthusiasm for progressive causes (animal rights, anti-sweatshop rhetoric) doesn’t stop her from doing crack with a homeless pregnant woman, Daphney, whose pierced clitoris is the object of some of Bock’s most loving writing. Bock is to be commended for even attempting such a complicated structure, shifting rapidly and disorientingly between places, characters, and times. In this regard, Beautiful Children has doubtless learned a lot from recent films that attempted similarly “intertwining” plots: Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000), Paul Haggis’ Crash (2005), Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel (2006). Like those films, some characters hold more interest than others: one character, comic book artist Bing Beiderbixxe, shows up early but—perhaps as a result of the author’s boredom—disappears for nearly the entire length of the novel. And like those movies, Beautiful Children frequently sacrifices character for set-piece; political clarity for message-seeking.

It is clear that Bock chooses to have a stripper in his novel not out of some misguided sense of empathy, but out of a more severely misguided fascination with describing nude dancing and pornography; the dreariest portions of Beautiful Children are devoted to both. Describing the riotous background of a strip act, in which Cheri sets candle-wax tips attached to her nipples on fire, Bock writes, “Music thumped. Bass bumped. Extras laughed and high-fived and hooted.” Bock deploys these useless notebook-type entries alongside automatic descriptions of videos: “A threesome. The copy repairman and the starlet temp and the curvy redheaded programmer. The copy repair guy had the redhead on the table, and was working on her back door. He was covered with sweat, really pounding into the redhead, who had stopped eating out the blonde and was lying on her side…” And so on. We learn from Bock’s acknowledgments that he did a significant amount of on-site research in the pornographic film industry. Yet no amount of research saves Bock from having his characters deliver the blandest of insights about pornography: “This was at odds with all that was truly sexual and erotic toLincoln.” Characters watch videos, laugh at the conventions, wince at the exploitation, and gratify themselves in spite of all of it. The point of the pornography of the novel is initially —Lincoln Ewing, for example, turns to pornography for a sexual solace that he ceases to find with his wife—but Bock’s obsession with lurid details takes us far beyond character. As with his description ofLas Vegas, Bock doesn’t withhold nearly enough—as if he imagined his readers to be completely unfamiliar with the conventions and human crimes of pornography.

Beautiful Children’s children are little more than types (the knowing but conflicted stripper; the naïvely liberal, punk rock girl; the fat, exploiting, leering pornographer), all of whom are “runaway” children of some stripe. Their thoughts are frequently on the level of cliché; their actions all traceable back to some primal loss of parental guidance. Bock is an energetic but undisciplined writer. A subject like his would have benefited from coolness and detachment. Invoking his inner George Eliot, he writes, at the end of the novel, “Each and every one of us moves toward fates we cannot possibly know. Each of us struggles against the pain of the world, even as we are doomed to join it.” These sententiously empty sentiments are characteristic of the novel as a whole. It is not rage that Bock feels, so much as childlike helplessness before a deterministic universe. What is mostly missing from Beautiful Children is what is normal to adult life: institutions, jobs. The novel is at its best when it is describing Kenny’s aunt’s pawnshop, in scenes clearly drawn from Bock’s own life. These pained, unsentimentalized transactions between adults suggest a clearer, more measured sense of city life that would have done the novel credit, had it been employed more often. Far from the spectacle of tattoos and breast implants, stripping and fucking, it suggests harsher truths about life on the fringes of Las Vegas and cities like it. After all, most of Bock’s readers do not end up like the aimless characters in his book—that is, we are not “doomed”—but getting by is no less difficult. It would take a more capaciously political understanding than Beautiful Children evinces to explain what the difference is.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1