I recently finished Beautiful Children after having to set it aside for a bit, and…well, Ruth Franklin has the time and space to say it much better than I could:
All the characters in Beautiful Children seek means of escape– if not actually through running away, then through comic books, video games, music, porn. Reading a novel, too, is a form of escapism, and one measure of Bock’s great success is that his book allows the reader metaphorically to enact this escape. More than one scene was so terrible to read that I actually cried out, but the pleasures of immersion in this fictional universe are nonetheless so considerable that–like Lincoln watching his porn videos, or Bing presented with Cheri’s flaming nipples–you cannot turn away. Indeed, the imaginative world of the novel is so vivid and complete that it is a little dismaying to find, at the very end, the only false note: an appended list of resources and advocacy groups for runaways, as if the subject of the novel were just another issue of the day. A work of fiction is not a position paper, and whatever didactic purpose it serves is finally irrelevant.
Actually, I’m not entirely on board with the complaint with the “resources” section—I suspect the book will have a way of gravitating toward the hands of parents of runaways (if not the runaways themselves), and if the novel has anything to say, it’s that every bit helps. I was actually a little more irked by Bock’s working runaway statistics into the story, but even there he’s lashed it to stories (maybe apocryphal, maybe not) about runaways that are suffused with grit, loss, and deeply black humor—a style you might call Bockian.
I certainly wouldn’t call what Bock has done DeLillo-like, as Franklin suggests, if only because DeLillo is the master of the big, widescreen, 35,000-foot view of the world, and though Bock works from multiple perspectives none of them are much higher than a sand dune. But that’s fine—I’m not convinced that DeLillo’s big-picture ironic portraits are worth imitating anymore, and if Beautiful Children is what we get instead, that trade is more than fair.