In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard, Guildenstern says, “What a fine persecution--to be kept intrigued without ever being quite enlightened.” This is his observation about waking in the middle of things. It is also applicable to a first novel by Christopher J. Yates, Black Chalk.
Yates shows his promise as a writer well equipped to hold the reader in a state of unsettled suspense. His plot seems to nod in the direction of a Fight Club surprise or Stephen King’s The Dark Half. Surely the narrator isn’t trustworthy; surely he’s duplicitous--perhaps by design, even one unknown to him.
But that’s just the first twist that delights readers. The design is indeed an unknown. The narrator stumbles upon the truth; he just can’t be sure he’s found it because he’s so damaged by guilt and an obsessive personality that plagued him before he met and cultivated five friends at Oxford.
Yates succeeds in recreating the exhilarating, liberating discovery of self in that first year at college, finding friends and building community. The four men and two women create a tiny universe unto themselves. Classmates understand the invisible ties that bind the six, especially after the game begins.
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One of the six conceives of a game resembling truth or dare, but in this case, refusing the consequence--the dare--is forfeiture of $1,000 pounds and the option of playing on. The truth then is the moral, social, or ethical lines we will not cross--the lines that youth often cannot, do not see until much too late.
Reputations lost and scarred have little power to dissuade the young, and indeed, today, such losses are too easily forgiven, ignored, and restored. Public humiliation suffices, but for these six, personal humiliations are unendurable. One player leaves early on because her consequence would betray her father, but the deep, abiding wound is because the others let her go. Their bond is so light, their desire to win so strong that she is tossed aside like a lover whose delights no longer please.
Why would anyone invent such a game? Why would anyone continue to play? Why would anyone listen to his friends’ stories and confessions with only an eye to disabuse them of their dignity and reputation when those stories and confessions can be transformed into consequences doled out in the game?
In answer to those questions, Yates is reticent. He seems to suggest the answer lies in the dark half of the human heart. We hurt each other and use others to gain advantage simply because we can. So Yates’ story is as old as Conrad’s or Golding’s, set in the ever so seemingly civilized Oxford. And those consequences break more than one friend.
Read Christopher J. Yates’ debut novel, Black Chalk.
“The true gambler plays for the thrill, the sheer ecstasy of taking part. And the purest thrill comes not from the idea of winning but from the fear of defeat, from there being something real and valuable on the line. If there’s nothing to lose, then where’s the thrill?” (from Yates, Christoper J. Black Chalk. New York: Picador, 2013. Kindle Ed.)
Let the words about winning and losing, about playing life’s games, inspire you.
Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.
She also writes for Our Eyes Upon Missouri.