As soon as I started reading Beautiful Children, I disliked it.
This reaction was gratifying. I went to graduate school in the late 80s and early 90s, where I learned to approach all literature (except the effusions of a few obscure gods) as an enemy to be destroyed. Though I’ve left academia, I’m still amazed to find myself bristling with weaponry every time I open a book—the surgical-strike-enabled critical theory, the political superiority, plus the fueling suspicion that the author knows more about writing, and life, than I ever will. (That last bit will probably never go away, but I’m working on the others.)
Anyway, Beautiful Children seemed to present an especially inviting target. A missing child, introduced through a home video? Manipulative. A doofus underground-comic artist with an interest in tattooing? Tragically hip. Gritty Las Vegas setting? Ditto. And the porn, so shocking to the bourgeois feminist reader (that would be me). But, OK…I’ll concede that artist is pretty funny. And the stripper is smart, self-aware with a consciousness that really seems like her own, not the author’s; and that missing kid’s parents, people whom I’d never want to hang out with myself, are making me actually consider whether I would hang out with them, because they are people. The stripper’s boyfriend is a monster, and I understand him without ever forgiving him…
My weapons are useless. I’m down on the pavement with all these fucked-up kids, sarcastically begging for change; I’m in the back of a van watching something truly hideous happen; and now I’m out on a lonely road, taking one last look at that kid who’s about to disappear forever, along with shadows of others who are already gone, and now the novel’s over and I don’t want to leave! I don’t want to leave this terrible world! That’s because Bock, like very few authors, knows how to take readers all the way in, without exploiting either us or the story. The horror is contained by a light and powerful art.
In an appendix, Bock lists resources for missing children and their families. So, wait…on top of all these other transgressions, does Bock ascribe to the quaint notion that fiction can help people? That it can inspire others to help? Why yes, that is what he’s saying. His novel’s impertinent ambitions and great big heart are the real deal.
I fought the book and the book won. That’s why I love it.