Tuesday, January 19, 2016

In retrospect, their naivety was staggering

I didn't know anything about Black Chalk when it showed up as my latest Just The Right Book acquisition. But the cover seemed interesting and buzz phrases like "intricate psychological puzzle thriller" and "dark, twist fun" sounded like this could be right up my alley. OK, so the tag line "One Game. Six Students. Five Survivors." is kind of confusing, if only cos when reading that my first thought was "...so like, those are pretty good odds." I'm not saying my typical game night ends up with someone dying, but we're not talking the Hunger Games here or anything.

But anyway, this book. It jumps back and forth from present day where our narrator is a crazy hermit, living in NYC. I have no idea how he affords his apartment, since he doesn't seem to have a job and certainly never leaves the place. He has a terrible memory and leaves himself these "mnemonics", clues to remind him to do things, such as leaving 6 glasses of water out each day, so he remembers to drink something. You'd think leaving some notes would work, but whatever. Let's not try to impose logic on the eccentric guy.

Our narrator-of-the-terrible-memory gets a strange phone call about a game. And thus we have the second part of the story, with the chapters jumping back to this guy's days at Pitt College in Oxford. There's an American exchange student Chad, who is shy but excited to be somewhere new, where intellect is appreciated. He meets and becomes fast friends with this guy Jolyon, who is the guy on campus that EVERYONE knows and loves. They make a few other friends and form their own little clique of students at the school that don't come from money.

One day during some sort of club day event, where all of the clubs (or soc's) on campus try to convince people to join, Chad spies a table for some Game Soc. The table is manned by three mysteries guys and Chad sees the guys turning people away. Chad convinces Jolyon and another friend Mark to talk to the guys, who agree that if they come up with an interesting enough game, the mystery guys will give them £10K towards their endeavor.

Basically, the story is about 6 college students at a fancy English school deciding to play truth or dare without the truth part. Through a series of cards and dice play that is never explained, the players have to perform some sort of "consequence" thought up by the other players. The consequences are embarrassing or upsetting. Ideally both. Every player has to put up £1,000 to play, if you refuse to do your dare, you forfeit your money. If you perform whatever your dare is and decide to quit after, you get your money back. Last man standing gets the £10K plus any forfeited money.

The Game starts innocently enough but slowly the group becomes obsessed with it, rarely talking about anything else. The challenges are selected for the individual, based on whatever will hurt them the most. And eventually the dares get to the point that friendships are broken, lives are ruined, and as that tagline tells you, one person doesn't make it out.

Here's the thing. While I do agree that the dares are embarrassing and I wouldn't want to do them, the reactions from everyone seem out of proportion to the dare. But maybe it's me?

Near the end of the book, where the dares are getting more intense, one of the characters has to get caught jerking off in a pub bathroom stall to an Asian Babes magazine. And yes, that sounds super embarrassing. Except here's the thing. It's not just embarrassing. People are LIVID at him. People call him names and tell him he's racist and spit on him and...really? I know it's embarrassing but why are we so mad at him? He didn't get caught at a playground or some SVU stuff. And each challenge is like this.
Spoiler contained

I liked the idea of the book, but since I didn't really believe anyone's reaction, I kept getting taken out of the story. By the end I didn't care. And I was reading the NPR review which mentioned the BIG TWIST and someone in the comments got angry the reviewer even mentioned a twist. I'll say this: I finished the book and didn't realize there was some BIG TWIST. So. But hey, the NPR guy liked it, so maybe this will be more your thing.

Gif rating:
Title quote from page 92

Yates, Christopher J. Black Chalk. Picador, 2013.