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Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

On Possibility and Walter Tevis's The Queen's Gambit

There are two kinds of beauty in Walter Tevis's The Queen's Gambit: the ones on the chessboard and the ones on the page. Even a passing familiarity with chess allows a reader to glimpse the grace and skill required to play the game at those high levels. The language is slightly unfamiliar (knight to queen bishop three), and the game is complex, but a reader who knows how to move that knight will marvel at the speed, the strategy, the imaginative combinations rising up from the squares of the board.


The utter beauty of the words on the page, however, might sneak up on a reader. In fact, writing a novel is similar to executing a perfect chess game. To be a writer is to decide time and again to face the endless possibility of a blank page, the dread and the wonder of it. Here, Tevis seats Beth Harmon at the chessboard and gives her his words:

She played mentally through game after game, learning new variations, seeing stylistic differences in offense in defense, biting her lip sometimes in excitement over a dazzling move or a subtlety of position, and at other times wearied by a sense of the hopeless depth of chess, of its endlessness, move after move, threat after threat, complication after complication.She had heard of the genetic code that could shape an eye or hand from passing proteins. Deoxyribonucleic acid. It contained the entire set of instructions for constructing a respiratory system and a digestive one, as well as the grip of an infant's hand. Chess was like that. The geometry of a position could be read and reread and not exhausted of possibility.

This is a marvel of a passage. It lands right in the middle of the book, and with it, you begin to see what Tevis is doing. His opening was unexpected, a disorienting gambit, leaving the reader feeling somehow detached from and simultaneously invested in the life of young Beth Harmon. The details of her brokenness slam the reader with the same dull force and matter-of-fact practicality as railcars coupling on a side track at the depot. You play on mechanically, but uncomfortably. But here in the middle game, you realize: Tevis is straight up showing off.


In those hopeless depths of chess (and writing), you start to understand Beth. When she sits in an armchair in Mexico, listening to the snores of her adopted mother nearby, you see how

she was actually poised over an abyss, sustained there only by the bizarre mental equipment that had fitted her for this elegant and deadly game. On the board there was danger everywhere. A person could not rest. She did not go to bed until after four and, asleep, she dreamed of drowning.

There is nothing easy about this life. Beth seems to only partially understand it, even as the reader knows it with certainty. Still. The chess. My god, the chess. It is a stunning game, and this book brings it to life in ways I did not expect. Tevis varies the pace of each game, some told with breathless freedom; others with a plodding detail that sits the reader down beside the board for all those staring hours. But each time Beth's opponent takes up that king to resign, it is a wonder.


I've been told the Netflix series is equally marvelous, but I doubt it. I can't bring myself to watch, in part because the abuse Beth suffers as a child and the abuse she inflicts on herself as an adult is something I don't want to visualize so fully. The book brings me quite close enough. But I also don't want to watch because I want this story to live here, for each brilliant chess match to sit within these beautiful words. It is shot through with beauty. Pain, yes. But also beauty.

The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to send me a message. I promise a reply. 

 

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