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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Review

Beautiful Children by Charles Bock
Victor Manley review

There is something that absolutely makes my skin crawl, and it is unfortunately becoming more prevalent with time as the public is supposed to become less adept at forming their own opinions. In Beautiful Children by Charles Bock, there are four pages of quotations from previous reviews no less, not including the back and front covers. In these carefully selected and manipulated fragments is some of the finest creativity contained within these pages. Before I have even begun the novel I am told of Bock’s relationship and similarity to eight other writers (Dickens three times), and of his outstanding genius and originality.

Seemingly praise is cheap in America, and adjectives even more so. Reviewers should learn to hold a little in reserve just in case they find something that is actually as good as their language. I am of course aware that none of this is Bock’s fault, it is the crime of the publisher (in this case Random House), but I still struggled to come to page one with an open mind.

Bock’s novel careers along for thirty-two pages. This flowing opening is flawed certainly, but it is after all Bock’s debut novel and a slightly over-zealous tone can be forgiven. Beautiful Children is a novel about the children who go missing from Las Vegas every year, and the hole’s in peoples lives these disappearances create. Initially it all seems rather well structured, if a little predictable, but one is prepared to let it make its merry way. All looks rosy, that is until page thirty-three.

There is nothing particularly awful about page thirty-three, but rather it signals the end of something. Something strange happens, something bizarre and worrying and unexpected: the story stops. Absolutely stops in its tracks. Call Scotland Yard! Somebody has murdered the story, and though at times valiant attempts are made to resuscitate the wounded creature it never recovers. It is dead. But why? There was hope in the first thirty-two pages. Hope bolstered by false praise, and yet it falls, rather spectacularly.

The autopsy must begin. There are one or two suspects. Perhaps the problem is in Bock’s desperation. His desperation to be taken seriously, his desperation to make an impact, to make a point. But in his desperation his brush-strokes are too broad, his passes too wide. We have drugs, sex, kidnapping, prostitution, failed marriages, strippers and lots and lots of neon. And of course each fragment does work to form an image of the whole, but Bock lingers too long on things which don’t seem to matter. He dwells on auxiliary characters to the point where the main story becomes lost.

Or maybe the problem is in the risks he takes. Not that this in itself a bad thing, rather the opposite, but with such an approach, such an attitude towards experimentation, not everything comes off. Shots miss the target, with quiet regularity, both in the direction of the story as a whole and sentence to sentence, millimetres of shrapnel disengage themselves and wedge themselves in one’s eyes. A stripper describing herself as a ‘bad puddy-tat’ for example almost sent me running to the optician. It is self-indulgent, but I absolutely respect Bock’s effort, his attempt at originality.

This is a flawed novel. No amount of reviews attesting to its genius could convince me otherwise. To mention it along with Dickens is close to criminal. It is not ‘heart-stopping’, ‘a revelation’ or ‘tantalizing’. It is at times tedious, arrogant and pretentious. I would commend Bock’s experimental temperament, but I am afraid it might be added to the list of reviews at the front of his book. Instead I will say this: ‘approach with caution: loose cannon’.
© Victor Manley Augu 2009

Victor is in the process of completing his masters in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth and woprking on his first novel

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