‘Beautiful Children’ Stuck in Loop

The eye cannot see fast enough to pick out the details of a pass thrown in a football game. The mind cannot recover a childhood birthday beyond an impressionistic blur. In our technological age, what would we do without instant replay? In his debut novel “Beautiful Children,” Charles Bock confronts the problem of video’s power, using this subtext to focus on an underexposed subject: the roughly 1.5 million adolescents who flee their homes every year in North America. But despite its shimmering surface, Bock’s novel ultimately crumbles under the burden of the visual medium it seeks to explore.

“Beautiful Children” begins with the recounting of a recounting: Bock painstakingly describes the last filmed moments of Newell Ewing, a snotty 12-year-old reared by Las Vegas suburbanites, before he disappears into the oblivion of the Nevada desert. There is clear fixation with recordings: a stripper becomes comfortable with her job by imagining herself in a movie; her perpetually filthy but charismatic boyfriend schemes to break into the pornography industry; a father escapes his bleak marital situation by losing himself in pornographic films. Bock meditates on how the filmed lose their power as their private moments are recorded, edited, marketed, and removed from their control. But he also examines how the viewer is affected by film: Newell’s parents can endlessly watch footage of him at a pizza party, but the repeat viewing is merely a realization of their own powerlessness. They are unable to effect Newell’s life in the unrecordable present. The entire book is caught up in this cinematic feel and unsuccessfully tries to merge this paralyzing force with a punchy, incisive style.

The prose alternates colloquial language with glamorized descriptions of the urban, partially adopting the interior monologue of each character. This strange fluctuation between the omniscient, descriptive voice and the informal internal voice can occur even in the same sentence. When the muscular punk Ponyboy rides his bike through the desert, Bock welds the character’s vocabulary together with an acute sense of the details of Las Vegas’ man-made oasis of asphalt and neon: “Ponyboy’s style was hauling ass, blazing through the smoldering afternoons, pedaling like hell over blacktop that had steam rising in waves above it.” The style can be fun to read and often pulls off some impressive verbal pyrotechnics, but these are often nullified when Bock gives too much to the reader. When, for example, he cutely projects the future lives of his characters, he deflates the ambiguity that at other times seems essential to the novel’s obsession with replaying particular moments.

It seems paradoxical that the video camera, invented to capture movement, is largely a form of isolation in the novel, which suffers when this point is stretched to its thematic conclusion. The characters seem trapped in this sort of stasis themselves. Their quick portraits are not deep enough to prevent easy categorization and stereotypes: the young punk railing against the world, the exotic dancer dreaming of bigger things, the sensitive homosexual artist, the paralyzed suburban housewife. Whether or not these typings are ultimately truthful seems like an intriguing question at the beginning of the book, but as it progresses, the extensive rumination on the characters’ roles fails to go anywhere or reveal anything about their nature.

The book is structured like a TV drama, incessantly jump-cutting between dramatic situations without hesitation. Bock’s ability to weave narrative elements is one of his greatest strengths, and he does it with a surprising confidence for a first-time novelist; at times he gives only a couple paragraphs of action before cutting to the next character. This rapid movement gives the novel the speed that drives it to its finish, despite its redundancies. However, the structure is marred by several characters who are introduced but whose paths through the book never really resolve or interact with the central motion of the plot in any meaningful way. Though a great deal of effort is made to construct the character of Bing Beiderbixxe, comic book artist and nerd extraordinaire, he’s never able to take shape as a character in himself or to contribute meaningfully to the story; he remains a bit part of Bock’s overlarge collage of Las Vegas personalities.

Of these personalities, it’s notable that the centerpiece and catalyst of the action, Newell, is the least developed character in the entire novel. He is supremely unlikable, trapped in an awkward period of adolescence that never reaches beyond spitefulness, and nothing ever redeems him. Our inability to connect with his character ultimately undermines the mystery of his vanishing. At first it seems interesting not to reveal the true reasons behind Newell’s disappearance, as it represents the idea that we can never understand these characters who live in such vastly different worlds than we do. The nature of individual action—and, by the same token, the nature of modern life—must always be an enigma for others to scrutinize endlessly in recordings. However, the external description, while allowing for unknown motives, fails to yield realistic characters. This is a natural, if unhelpful, aspect of the world as seen through the camera’s lens: there can be no interiority. Studying a replayed moment in time may have its fascinating qualities, but it ultimately proves unsatisfying to be trapped in an infinite loop.