Mimsy Review: The Queen’s Gambit
“Would you like to play chess?”
This is an astonishing novel. Astonishing in that it makes chess thrilling; astonishing in that, in a sense, it takes Camus’s very unlikable Stranger and makes her likable.
I finished this book faster than any book I’ve read in the last several years. Once I started it was hard to put down—in order to keep doing my own writing, I deliberately left it at work, which didn’t exactly help my work ethic. Fortunately, I had an all-day meeting one of those days and was able to read a lot of it during the boring parts, I mean, in between sessions.
I’ve been looking for this book for a long time. It never shows up in bookstores, and I swear it wasn’t showing up as in print on Amazon for quite a while. It may be also that I saw it but didn’t buy it because I wanted to have the mass-market paperback version to be able to carry it around. Whatever, I finally purchased it on Amazon several weeks ago and put it in my “to read” pile.
It is beautifully written, but not in the way that is normally meant: it is sparse, simple. The pages rush by. I am going to read it again just to lavish in the sheer unwordiness of it.1
It’s difficult to review a book like this, because it’s a relatively simple story; quoting too much or describing too much gives away too much of the pleasure of the reading. I’ve read some other reviews, and some of them say the main character is unlikable; that’s not precisely true. She is likable, but she’s also hyper-competent at what she does, and doesn’t always understand other humans who don’t understand why she would want to do that. And since she enjoys what she does, and can make a living at it, she doesn’t care what they think, either.
She is weak at times, but that doesn’t make her unlikable, just a bit of a train wreck—albeit a realistic train wreck. One of the flaws of most books about people who succumb to addictions is just how unbelievable they are. I never once thought that in The Queen’s Gambit. It was painful watching Beth succumb to her weaknesses, but it was never unbelievable—and it never made me want to stop reading.
Part of her weakness, though, is also a strength of the novel: Beth starts the book at eight years old; she has very little agency. Even her talent is one that seems to take her over rather than being one that she personally develops.
About midway into the games she was staring out the window at a bush with pink blooms when she heard Mr. Ganz’s voice saying, “Beth, I’ve moved my bishop to bishop five” and she replied dreamily, “Knight to K-5.” The bush seemed to glow in the spring sunlight.
“Bishop to knight four,” Mr. Ganz said.
“Queen to queen four,” Beth replied, still not looking.
“Knight to queen’s bishop three,” Mr. Shaibel said gruffly.
“Bishop to night five,” Beth said, her eyes on the pink blossoms.
“Pawn to knight three.” Mr. Ganz had a strange softness in his voice.
“Queen to rook four check,” Beth said.
She heard Mr. Ganz inhale sharply. After a second he said, “King to bishop one.”
“That’s mate in three,” Beth said, without turning. “First check is with the knight. The king has the two dark squares, and the bishop checks it. Then the knight mates.”
Beth’s mind is playing chess without her.
The story starts in earnest when she’s thirteen. She’s still very immature—she is annoyed by the social games that her classmates play against each other, and her, but she succumbs to the same immaturity against her opponents in the chess world. A good part of the story is that it takes her a long time to grow out of it. One of the complaints about the rest of the characters is that they’re a bit stock. But that’s not the fault of the characters, it’s the fault of Beth: it’s how she views her life. Everyone except herself is one-dimensional. Every opponent is an ogre until she beats him. Then they can be friends, or at least friendly. Just like when she was eight with her then-best-friend Jolene. That’s the Stranger quality to it: existence is just oozing her along the checkered board that is her life.
And the characters themselves are absolutely not stock. There’s been talk for a long time about making it into a movie; I dread what the movie does with Mr. Shaibel: a fat possibly alcoholic janitor luring an eight-year-old girl to the basement of her orphanage to play games with her. Beth’s adoptive mother probably isn’t going to come out too well either, despite her being just the parent Beth needed at thirteen.
This is one of those books that get passed around by novelists; I first heard about it from Steven Boyett at the La Jolla Writers Conference, when he read the section that includes the snippet above in his Soliloquies and Self Indulgence workshop. It’s an example of literary style that isn’t wordy yet still seems, in the modern world of fast-paced novels, self-indulgent on the author’s part. It’s the kind of work writers say that they wish they could still write, and pass around like addicts in dark rooms after conferences close.
You should definitely read it.
I just added “unwordiness” to my dictionary, because it is an important new word.↑